Aphelion Issue 227, Volume 22
April 2018
 
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Sanction

by Martin Westlake




The curfew traffic seemed even thicker than usual. People had been encouraged to stay out by the relatively fine weather. But now night was falling, and the smog was rolling back in and people had realised it was high time they got back to wherever it was they had to go; nobody wanted to be out when the jigger hounds started running. Job was no different. He pushed and pulled his way through the throng. A tall man, he could see above the seething crowds washing up and down the main drag and judge his slow progress as he gradually neared the Uz housing block where his wife, he knew, would be gazing down anxiously, as she did every day he returned from the Sleens.

He was making reasonable progress and had already passed the vats halfway along the drag when he suddenly felt a stinging sensation in his left wrist, in the sensitive skin just above the palm of his hand. He instinctively shook his hand about. Improbable though it seemed, some sort of stinging insect must have got into the sleeve of his jacket, he reasoned. Then he felt another sting, this time on the back of his wrist, opposite the first sting, and then another and another. Job really didn’t want to take his glove off and risk frostbite, but the pain was growing in intensity and had become almost unbearable.

It was like a circle of stings, all the way around the wrist. He looked down and, as he did so, he felt a lightness to his arm and saw that the glove had gone floppy, as though it were empty. At that moment a government notice flashed up in his mind: ‘three infractions = sanction = amputation of left hand; remember, Beelz says, crime never pays!’ Job screamed involuntarily. He whipped the glove off and saw that his hand was indeed gone. A shiny stump peeped out of the end of his coat sleeve. He grabbed the sleeve with his right hand and closed it to stop the freezing air getting in, and then the adrenalin started to course through his body and his heart raced.

‘No,’ he whimpered; ‘no! It must be a mistake.’

The oblivious, uncaring crowds seethed about him. Already, he was starting to lose the good progress he had made towards the Uz. He struggled forward again, holding the handless arm to his chest. What could have happened? Three infractions? That was impossible. There hadn’t been a single infraction, let alone three. This could not be. He had no choice now but to return to the Uz for the night. But he would have to get to the civil service first thing in the morning, before he left for the Sleens. Then his heart lurched; tomorrow was Beelz Day, he realised. The civil service would be closed. Damn. There’d be an emergency link somewhere, surely? He pushed against the crowds now with renewed urgency.


*****



‘There’s been a mistake,’ he told his wife, as she hurriedly locked the front door behind him.

‘A mistake?’

They heard the distant howl of a first jigger hound.

‘I’ve been sanctioned.’

She gasped and put her hand to her mouth.

‘How? What for?’

He held out his left arm with its shiny stump and she screamed, as he had screamed.

‘What for?’

‘I don’t know. The notice didn’t say. Three infractions equals sanction, that’s all it said.’

‘Infractions?’

‘It’s a mistake, I tell you. There have been no infractions.’

‘Are you sure, Job?’

‘Of course I’m sure. I tell you; I’ve never had a single infraction in all my life. It’s a mistake.’

‘What can we do?’

‘I was going to go to the civil service tomorrow morning.’

‘Tomorrow?’

‘Yes, but it will be shut; it’s Beelz Day.’

‘Tomorrow’s too late, Job. You’ve got to get it back as soon as possible.’

‘Right. I thought maybe there would be an emergency link somewhere.’

‘Let’s look. Here – ’ she helped him out of his coat while he pulled off his right glove with his teeth. ‘Does it hurt?’ she asked.

‘It did,’ he said. ‘That’s how I knew something was up. But it doesn’t now.’

‘It’s incredible,’ she said, ‘that they can do such a thing. There should at least have been an appeal line given with the sanction.’

He laughed.

‘You’d think we were living in a democracy,’ he said sourly.

She turned on the screen and they searched the civil service site. They found confirmation for the sanction; three infractions for civil disobedience.

‘But there have been no infractions,’ Job protested.

‘It seems so harsh,’ she said. ‘An ear, or a finger, perhaps,’ she said. ‘But a whole hand?’

‘I tell you,’ he said. ‘There have been no infractions.’

She stared at him for a few seconds.

‘How do you know?’

‘Because I would know, wouldn’t I? Wouldn’t I?’

She shook her head slowly. Then they both turned to the screen.

‘Here it is,’ he said, after a few minutes. ‘Appeals.’

They read the dense text.

‘So,’ she said, ‘you have to go in person.’

‘So,’ he said, ‘I’ll have to wait a day.’

‘I’m sorry, Job.’

‘But I can’t work at the Sleens with one hand, can I?’

She shook her head.

‘No, Job. That would surely be impossible.’

He bowed his head and wept.


*****



Two days later, he left the Uz complex as soon as it was safe to do so and made his way through the early crowds to the civil service Ziggurat. The infotronics directed him through the bowels of the massive building until he found himself in a brightly-lit hall. His heart sank. The hall was already full almost to overflowing. A number flashed up in his mind, followed by a message.

‘5,237. You will be seen tomorrow morning. Come back tomorrow morning.’


*****



Three days after he felt that first stinging sensation in his wrist he stood waiting again in the brightly-lit hall in the bowels of the Ziggurat. Once again, he had come as soon as he could and, once again, the hall was already full. But this time the number that flashed up in his mind - 563 - was encouragingly low and counting down. After four hours the number had reached the low 60s and in the middle of the afternoon a new message flashed up.

‘Booth 332.’

He made his way to the booth and knocked at the entrance.

‘Yes, yes,’ said a squeaky voice. ‘Hurry up.’

Job saw a small man sitting at his desk, studying the display projected before him.

‘Sit down,’ the man squeaked.

Job sat down.

‘I see a sanction,’ said the man, ‘for three infractions. So, what’s the problem?’

‘I’ve lost my hand,’ said Job, pulling back his sleeve and holding out his left arm.

‘I can see that,’ said the man.

‘I can’t work without it,’ said Job.

‘Where do you work?’ asked the man.

‘In the Sleens.’

‘That’s too bad,’ said the man. ‘Anyway, what can I do?’

‘I want it back.’

‘Back?’

The man leaned over the desk and studied Job’s stump.

‘That’s at least two days old, isn’t it?’ he said.

‘It happened three days ago,’ said Job. ‘As I was returning from the Sleens.’

The man sucked his teeth.

‘Then it’s too late.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Job.

‘You should have come straightaway.’

‘I couldn’t.’

‘Why not?’

‘It was just before the curfew and the next day was Beelz day.’

‘Well, that’s not my fault, is it?’ The man said, raising his voice.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Job. ‘I’m sorry if I got angry.’

‘Well, just watch it,’ said the man. ‘And put that stump away. I’ve seen enough of it, thank you very much.’

‘Is there no way I can get my hand back?’

‘I very much doubt it. They start incinerating twenty-four hours after the sanction. Hang on, I’ll have a look for you.’

The man programmed something in and looked at his screen.

‘No,’ he said, ‘your hand was incinerated yesterday afternoon., at 15.37 precisely.’

‘I was here yesterday morning,’ said Job.

‘So?’

‘I was told to come back today.’

‘So? You should have come earlier, shouldn’t you?’

‘I came as early as I could.’

‘Well, it wasn’t early enough, was it?’

‘I came as soon as the curfew lifted.’

‘Look,’ said the man, ‘will you please stop trying to make me feel bad? You’re the one who got the sanction, not me. Anyway, why do you think you should get your hand back?’

‘I’ve come to appeal.’

‘Appeal?’

The man laughed.

‘Go on, then,’ he said. ‘Try me.’

‘The notice said three infractions,’ said Job. ‘But there haven’t been three infractions.’

‘You think there’s been a mistake?’ said the man.

‘Yes, I think there must have been.’

‘You think there must have been? You are doubting us? You are doubting the civil service?’

‘No, no,’ said Job. ‘I am not doubting the civil service.’

‘That’s what it sounds like to me.’

‘I didn’t mean that, honestly’

‘You said we’d made a mistake, didn’t you?’

‘I’m sorry. I said I thought there must have been a mistake somewhere. Not necessarily the civil service.’

‘And where else might there have been such a mistake? Do you think the civil service goes around zapping off people’s hands with gay abandon, do you?’

‘No, no. Of course not.’

‘Of course not, you say,’ said the man, standing up now, ‘and yet what other interpretation can be put on your remarks?’

‘I’m sorry. I thought maybe somewhere in the machinery…’

‘The machinery? The machinery? What machinery?’

‘Well, I…’

‘The civil service doesn’t make mistakes, do you hear?’ said the man in a slow, angry tone. ‘We don’t make mistakes.’

He sat down again.

‘My apologies,’ said Job.

‘Huh!’ said the man. ‘So, what’s your appeal?’

‘The infractions.’

‘The three infractions?’

‘Yes,’ said Job. ‘The three infractions.’

‘What about them?’

‘I don’t think there have been three infractions.’

The man looked at him sharply.

‘You’re starting again, aren’t you?’

‘No, no,’ said Job. ‘I’m sorry. It’s just that…’

‘Did you check your account?’

‘My account?’

‘My account?’ said the man, mimicking him. ‘Your infractions account.’

‘My infractions account? I didn’t know I had one.’

‘Anybody who gets an infraction gets an infraction account,’ said the man. ‘It’s logical.’

‘But I don’t have any infractions,’ said Job.

‘Oh, you don’t do you? Let’s have a look and see.’

The man programmed something in again and looked at the screen.

‘Here you are,’ he said. ‘There’s your infraction account, and there’s your three infractions.’

He instructed the display to reverse itself. Job looked.

‘I honestly didn’t know I had an infractions account,’ he said.

‘Well, whose fault is that?’

‘But how could I know?’

‘Oh, come on!’ said the man. ‘As soon as you’ve got an infraction, you know you’ve got an infractions account, don’t you? It’s logical.’

‘But I’ve never had an infraction.’

‘Never had one? Never had one! You’ve had three. Here, let’s have a look.’

He reversed the projection and squinted at the figures.

‘The first one was seven years ago.’

‘Seven years!’

‘Yep. Seven years ago. For unduly questioning authority. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?’

‘I just don’t remember such a situation.’

‘Careful!’

‘But wouldn’t I have been told? I mean, wouldn’t I have been warned that I’d got an infraction?’

‘Come on, now,’ said the man. ‘It’s not our job to warn everybody about their infractions. Besides, you shouldn’t be getting them in the first place. And, anyway, it looks like you’ve got form. Here’s the second; three years ago. Exactly the same infraction. And the third from last week.’

‘I should at least remember that one.’

‘Of course you should.’

‘Where did it happen?’

‘At the Sleens.'

The Sleens! Suddenly, Job remembered the scene. He had just finished cleaning down the machine he had been using when one of the foremen had told him to cut some more faisal. He had asked the foreman whether he couldn’t find another operator whose machine was still dirty. The foreman had got angry with him, he remembered. But did that count as an infraction?

The man was studying him.

‘You remember now, do you?’

‘I remember a situation,’ said Job. ‘But it was hardly an infraction.’

‘The facts don’t lie,’ squeaked the man, ‘and they say you questioned authority unduly on three occasions.’

‘Who decides these things?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean, who decides that an infraction has occurred?’

‘The authorities, of course,’ said the man. ‘The authorities.’

‘Isn’t that a little unfair?’

‘You know as well as I do that fairness has got nothing to do with this,’ said the man. ‘You can’t question the authorities and get away with it.’

He was on his feet again, but Job didn’t care anymore.

‘So, let me see if I have got this right. I have been sanctioned on account of three infractions I apparently committed but was unaware of. The infractions were about questioning the authorities and in all three cases it was the authorities who decided that an infraction had occurred, right?’

The man nodded slowly. A smirk was playing across his face.

‘That’s right,’ he said.

‘And, as a result of that sanction, I won’t be able to work at the Sleens anymore, nor indeed, anywhere else, probably.’

The man shrugged.

‘We can’t be held responsible for the consequences,’ he said. ‘It’s your fault.’

‘And I can’t appeal?’

‘Nope.’

‘And my hand is lost?’

‘Yes, and maybe you should get your temper under control and have a look at your infractions account again.’

He instructed the projection to reverse and Job looked. Two new infractions.

‘Two infractions!’ he screamed.

The man smirked.

‘Now look what you’ve done,’ he said.

‘But I haven’t done anything!’

‘It says here that you have.’

‘But that was you. You have done that to me!’

‘Of course. Who else?’

‘But there have been no infractions.’

‘But don’t you see? There you go again, questioning authority unduly.’

‘I haven’t questioned authority. I haven’t!’

‘That’s not what it feels like to me.’

‘Look, surely you understand that I am a bit distraught?’

‘That doesn’t justify the way you have been behaving towards me. I have tried to do my best. I looked up your amputated hand to see whether it could be recuperated, and your infractions account. I could have just said ‘no’, you know.’

‘Can I appeal against the new infractions?’

‘Nope. You can only appeal after a sanction.’

‘This is crazy.’

‘No, it’s not. Our society is based on authority and the authorities. What people like you and all the people in this hall don’t realise is that we can’t run society if our authority is going to be questioned every five minutes. Besides, do you think it’s easy, being a civil servant?’

Job wept.

‘If I don’t get my hand back I can’t work,’ he sobbed.

‘Well, tough,’ squeaked the man. ‘You should have thought about that before you started misbehaving.’

‘Isn’t there somebody above you to whom I might talk?’ he pleaded.

‘What do you mean by that? You see; there you go! Now you’re questioning my authority yet again. If I were you, I’d get out of here before you get another infraction.’

‘But…’

The man was on his feet.

‘Should I call security?’

‘No, no,’ said Job. ‘I’ll go.’

Job stood up, slowly. The man made a menacing gesture towards his console.

‘Well?’

‘I’m going,’ said Job. ‘I am going.’

He walked out of the booth. Into the hall, with its thousands of people. And he saw once again that they were all nursing an arm, like him, or limping, or wearing hats or bandages around their heads to mask missing appendages. And, like him, they were all there to appeal, but they didn’t yet know what he knew; that it was impossible to win an appeal. Authority, and the authorities, were always right.

‘Listen, everybody,’ he shouted. ‘It’s no use!’

Some people raised their heads and looked at him curiously.

‘You can’t win an appeal!’ he shouted. ‘You can’t win!’

Nobody was listening. They were all still hoping.


*****



Outside the Ziggurat he turned for the main drag. It was already getting close to the curfew. He picked up his pace and started walking back towards the Uz complex. What was he going to do? He couldn’t work in the Sleens with only one hand. And he couldn’t not work. What would he tell his wife? She would be furious when she learned about the infractions – the old ones and the new ones; two already! He had almost reached the vats when he suddenly felt a stinging sensation in his right wrist, in the sensitive skin just above the palm of his hand. Oh, no. Surely not! Then, he felt another sting, this time on the back of his wrist, opposite the first sting, and then another and another. It was a circle of stings, all the way around the wrist. He looked down and, as he did so, he felt a lightness to his arm and saw that the glove had gone floppy. At that moment a government notice flashed up in his mind: ‘three infractions = sanction = amputation of right hand; remember, Beelz says, crime never pays!’ Job screamed. The bastard had slapped a third infraction on him! Probably because he had shouted in the hall. He turned back towards the Ziggurat.

The infotronics directed him back through the bowels of the massive building until he reached the now familiar brightly-lit hall. Despite the late hour, the hall was full, and the overflow had backed up out into the length of the corridor. A number flashed up in his mind, followed by a message.

‘21,306. You will be seen in two days’ time. Come back the day after tomorrow.’

Job pushed and excused his way through the crowd into the hall and across the hall to booth 332. The booth was empty. The door behind the desk was sealed shut. Job staggered back through the crowd to the corridor and through the bowels of the Ziggurat to the street. That was that, he thought. The hand would be incinerated before he could appeal and, anyway, he couldn’t win an appeal, even if he made one. He headed back towards the Uz complex. When he reached the vats, he stepped out of the flow of the crowd and climbed, with difficulty, on top of one of the containers and sat there, shivering. His tears froze on his cheeks. As the curfew hour approached, the movement of the crowd quickened, and then the crowd thinned until just a few late stragglers were left sprinting along the main drag, and then there was nobody.

Job heard a first jigger hound howl. He climbed down from the container and made his way out onto the main drag. He looked up at the Uz housing block where his wife, he knew, would be gazing down anxiously. He pulled up his sleeves and waved his stumps above his head. Surely, she would see them and understand. There was nothing for him to do now. There was nothing he could do. He sat down and watched the smog rolling in and listened as the howls of the jigger hounds grew ever closer…



THE END


2017 Martin Westlake

Bio: Martin Westlake is a British-born resident of Brussels, Belgium. His last Aphelion apprearance was The End in our April, 2017 issue.

E-mail: Martin Westlake

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