20100428

Bill Drennan


               X-Sect

               It must have been some ironic balancing act that drove so many insect species, formerly accustomed to a long and healthy existence on the planet’s surface, either to extermination or beneath the soil. It is now 2382, and the old expression ‘the fearful rule by fear’ is probably fitting on the topic of the X-Sect agency. The name, Greg assures himself, is a useful fusion of a contracted version of ‘insect’ prefixed by a possible shorthand for ‘exterminator’. The hyphenated isolation that puts emphasis on the ‘ex’ certainly parallels the demonised apartness which, once reserved for insects, has gradually spilled into the human ecosystem, casting an ugly shadow over the clean metallic World Territory.
               X-Sect activity began 50 years ago during a brief period of the planet’s history which saw the arrival to the surface of the planet of thousands of unclassified insect species. The whole sad tale concerning these unwelcome creatures, as well as its sorry exaggerations, began in 2332, and is perhaps nowhere more hideously misrepresented than in the term ‘sectator sport’. ‘Sectator’, an ugly word if ever there was one, isn’t so far removed from another word that has been banned for two hundred and forty years but whose disappearance, like the appearance of ‘sectator’, is probably just another political fabrication: ‘senator’ became unavailable during the Last Revolution of 2092 and was at the time regarded as a triumph against corruption in high places and groups of rich old men who practised spiritual miserliness for a living. ‘Senex’, ‘senator’ and ‘senile’ became the same thing – as if the ancient Latin root of the word had never lost appropriateness. And there has been enough time for the mythic ouroboros to stop licking its post-revolutionary wounds and attend to its posterior once more – its forked tongue forever employed in self-service. Which is to say that after the novelty, the revolution which swept the world into a clean and more controllable human ecosystem began quite quickly to rot under a smooth metallic surface.
               Control mechanisms, like the beings they ‘represent’, seem to require the negative excitement of an enemy if they are at all to survive. There are ways and means of achieving this and, because of the secretive nature of Control, those ways and means have come to depend on underground theories which attempt to explain the nature of government operations. One of the main theories runs like this: all strings are pulled by a corrupt and secret group which has, from various post-revolutionary positions of economic responsibility, amassed impossible fortunes and slipped quietly into the shadows. Officially, nobody is that rich. It is easy enough for the World Territory Organisation’s PR agency to dream up another role or ‘inflammatory’ ideology for this or that political party. Unlike X-Sect, this agency exists only in theory; it has a ‘wardrobe’ of political puppets, all of whom are perfectly capable of being clothed in almost any ideology of the PR agency’s choosing – as long as the said ideology is appropriately cut and polarised. So an ideology becomes a kind of coathanger upon which all jackets and all opinions are designed to hang. This cabal’s ‘wardrobe game’ bears more resemblance, Greg reasons, to an experiment in the control and channelling of the WT population’s inward-turning emotional reactions. Voting is compulsory: ‘no job, no vote’ is casually scrolled across all telescreens during tinny round-the-clock media reports – in all cities and all towers and all living pods. So that for most of the population political voice is a kind of walk-in illusion and political thought is like screenburn; they are both part of a spectacle of opinion rendered negligible by the shadow of control. And it is difficult to tell exactly what lies in the labyrinth of secrecy. There are only the parties to blame: who have tinkered – allegedly – with tax levels, pay increments and the rest of the illusory economic minutiae of the ‘Great Economic Plan’ since the end of the Last Revolution. Needless to say, no forward leap has ever been made, and control has been sustained with maximum equilibrium.
               Greg builds goes over these theories, trying to understand his altered world. He is a syncretist, claiming his own reality from the muddled remains of theory, rumour, secrecy and circumstance. But maybe this kind of speculation is only good for exciting a wearied imagination. As he sees it, the control method looks more like a kind of invisible masquerade. There is no single head of any presiding party, and therefore no official head of the World Territory Organisation (the proud slogan of the first revolutionary govermnent being ‘no emperor, no dictator’). No iconic representation is permitted. It is not unlike a Protestant revolt – without the Religion but with all the necessary fervour; and more like faceless icon worship than iconoclasm; it is like a secret society that favours anonymity over recognition or fame, both of which are regarded as weakness. Even your job is secret, except to immediate colleagues, who are sworn to secrecy just as you yourself are. And friends need to be chosen very carefully. The anonymous neighbour in the pod next to you could be high up in the authorities and you would never know. Similarly, the neighbouring pod could easily harbour an X-Sect worker. And those who, like Greg, entertain underground conspiracies, cannot give them a solid enough reality to raise them to the status of an ideology. Not that it is advisable on the highly regulated level of everyday reality to openly discuss non-official ideologies, as Greg and Scanlon had done. Even members of the underground are vowed to a cautious, if not paranoid, silence. Most of their ideas are received through the covert publication and distribution of unregulated and therefore contraband books. And these books are as scarce as they are sought by X-Sect brigades. Yes, these are levels of thinking that are interesting, but also frought with danger and uncertainty – as ‘interesting’ usually is. He remembers Scanlon’s words: “We need excitement, or we will look for it!” There is even a theory circulating that Greg heard first from her: claiming that all ‘dangerous’ speculation is deliberately seeped into the human system with the dual purpose of sustaining an atmosphere of fear and identifying enemy sect-terrorists. Seeped in. Like the invisible politicians. Perhaps, muses Greg, it should be ‘seeped out’ instead of ‘voted out’.
               Though powerless under the tainted reasoning that produces the stale odour of cronyism, dogma, and brutalism, the poor insects had no real part to play in the badly spun illusions of everyday life. The visitors were, unlike their persecutors, not materialists with no religions, no spirituality, no real art, no imaginative or forward-thinking creativity to boast of – in the sense of an evolving world existence. (All open or known theories relating to an evolution of thought or consciousness belong to the underground.) The insects were not economic creatures, and the eco of their ecosystem was not laden with economic principles designed to deter, detain and dissolve a person’s sense of reality. Even 50 years ago, at the time of the Great Insect Invasion, there had been underground theories suggesting that the shadowy plutocratic cabal was hard at work on a secret transdimensional portal, and that this portal has been back-engineered using ancient alien technology. The portal had reputedly caused the Great Insect Invasion. Today, many people are still reluctant to believe this, including Greg, who supposes that the authorities would have been too dumb to close the portal even if they had managed to open it … Had the insect population migrated from the frying pan of a former existence to the fire of this one? It was still open to speculation, unless you favoured the WTO version of events. Whatever the case, even a minor cataclysm didn’t seem to work very well with bureacracy. It surely couldn’t be the case that the WTO was more concerned about the ‘paperwork’ (as it was still called) than the plight of twenty thousand new insect species? But maybe the authorities, even at that time, were not so dumb. Maybe they just played dumb and got away with – in the dumb show of World Territory politics. The fear of insects was now standard, despite the obvious lack of them. The worst thing was that suffering was allowed to happen; suffering was positively encouraged; and a Pleasure Utopia, even a Disney version, cannot be built in this way – unless, at some level or other, a pledge to suffering is made.
               The voting population now lives in silent and accustomed terror of X-Sect death squads. As the numbers of insect ‘invaders’ declined, the X-sect agency became responsible for more and more security issues. These days it handles all front-line operations. Since 2332, X-Sect has solved crisis after crisis and never failed in warding off enemy threats. Each worker-voter ‘clocks on’ every morning, ten days a week. Security alerts are automatically registered in cases of unnotified absence, upon which the agency is usually quick to act. X-Sect is in charge of all security issues on behalf of the WTO and its human ecosystem. There is not one starving person in the World Territory (‘one world, one population’ is the regulation catchphrase of X-Sect). Everyone works. Tax-payers vote. Workers consume, spend, invest. There are no wars any more – except those waged by X-Sect on the ‘enemy’. X-Sect is currently congratulating itself on having spent 50 years in the business. X-Sect is the only agency that has resembled an army since the end of the Last Revolution. The population has everything it needs – including an enemy; there are more than enough enemies to keep it on its toes and more than enough thugs to defend the well-choreographed footsteps. Enemies of the World Territory are hunted down like insects by a gang of thugs with fast-acting secticides; and retcorders (retinal implants) to secure exemplary ‘records of punishment’ in the agency’s databank.
               But surely, Greg reasons, insects could run the show better than this! He feels a familiar pang in the pit of his gut. He feels an affinity with bugs. He should never have shown anger to Professor Kippax. He endangered his own existence by behaving like that. Anger is an emotion of insect-terror! Only vicious bugs get angry! He should never have gone into hiding either. He is surprised that his pod has not yet been invaded by X-Sect. He is ‘enemy’, and he knows that if he does not get a grip and get a grip soon he will fail to be anything at all. Slowly and deeply he controls his breathing … He thinks of Scanlon. She could make him hard with just that one look … Ah! But what’s the use! … Greg had heard a fair amount of theory from Scanlon, before her disappearance … Yes, he assures himseslf, ‘senator’ is a word that has gone, remembered only by scholars. An assassinated word, a word that was stuffed with lies and put away in a cluttered museum drawer. And yet a daft and ugly phrase like ‘sectator sport’ has survived. It has survived as a phrase to be feared, just as the word ‘sect’ has come to be associated with chaos and violence. ‘Sect’ is also synonymous with ‘insect’, ‘insect lover’, ‘sect lover’, ‘sectophile’ and ‘terrorist’. And while there are almost no insects left on the planet’s clean-living surface, insects have somehow crept into vile popular mythologies and superstitious bigotries, which are officially sanctioned.
               From hitherto hidden lives in underground chambers situated deep in the earth, some twenty thousand species of insect were spewed upwards into the surface atmosphere. WT agencies reported ‘unusual’ seismic activity, claiming that tectonic shifts were responsible for the irruptions. The Forbidden Lands were the official source of the Great Insect Invasion. It was out of bounds to all and everything except approved officials. There were theories (again, from Scanlon …) that scalar weaponry had been used, or that transdimensional portals had been coaxed open; that the twenty thousand species of unidentified insects, mainly coleopterans, had invaded the World Territory by this secretive government doorway. The dangerous insect creatures, more feared, no doubt, because they dared to entertain that enigmatic quality of unknownness, crawled out of crevasses and cave systems, out of every available nook and cranny that served as portals to an alternative ecosystem. Indeed, it was as if an alternative ecosystem had been swept in from another dimension, though this of course wasn’t how it was reported at the time. The threat, Greg thinks, must have been exaggerated, since most of the bugs were declared harmless at the time by official entomologists. The non-official underground enthusiasts (who were to be dealt with later on – the new waves of insects having been given priority) suggested at the time that the arrival and settling-in of the insects would bring no drastic inconvenience to the human ecosystem. They said that most of the bugs weren’t interested in humans or their World Territory. Naturally, they were accused of favouring insect invaders over human inconvenience and suffering.
               Where the number of known insect species had been around the million mark, it would only have stepped up to one million and twenty thousand had the visitors been allowed to stay. Most of the bugs stayed at ground level and some moved in as guests lower down in the towers. It had been the bigger bugs that had caused most of the restless perturbation, hysteria and rigid trepidation. According to official records, the human ecosystem was in danger of being destroyed by giant cockroaches. Contemporary entomologists, themselves something of a non-species involved in the underground movements, claim that the Giant Plasma Bug arrived from an extremely hot region where it was capable of swimming in magma; it is popularly believed to have been tectonically displaced from an unspeakable hell or inferno that only religionists could ever have been acquainted with (‘no religion, no hell’ being a common, if not slightly old-fashioned, revolutionary aphorism); it was demonised as a creature from the flames fanned by the evil bequeathed by dead religions. And everbody knows that evil cannot be buried for long. One entomologist is known to have touched the surface of a Giant Plasma Bug and survived to tell the tale. He came away unscathed and was soon found out and summarily executed.
               Cities were overawed more by the strangeness of the insects than by their quantity. Only a very small percentage of these bugs ever caused any direct harm to the human population. The Glowing Skin Mite was the only bug known to taste human flesh and did so during the night in the same manner that bedbugs, lower down in the towers, still drink the blood of menial workers as they sleep. These carniverous bugs were slightly larger than their cousins and it would have taken perhaps years for the weakened host to die. But the itch of the luminescent scabbing was so severe and the insect population regarded as such a threat that this species was very quickly dealt with. And in truth, it all happened so quickly, so indiscriminately, that most factual information relating to this episode in the planet’s history might as well crawl back where it came from. Insects had, in any case, been a source of great inconvenience even before the Great Insect Invasion. And during the invasion, a great many more production hours were lost. ‘No work, no vote’ had itself become a kind of sickness, a fear. Sick days were sometimes blamed on mosquitos (genetically modified to keep their parasites to themselves), or cockroaches that left stinks so nasty that it took days of airing and scrubbing after X-Sect had been called in. It was as if the facts had been taken into the soil with the insects who escaped the death squads. Conditions dredged up by the waves of ‘subterranean’ insects, such as the strange dreams and hallucinatory trances that accompanied the attack of the Glowing Skin Mite, were never officially recorded.



X-sect is a section of a science fiction novella that Bill Drennan is currently working on ...

 
 
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