Chapter One: Whatever It Takes

Author’s note: This untitled short story was written as part of my creative writing degree; a creative response to Kate Mildenhall’s novel, The Mother Fault. I wrote this in mid-2020 during the emerging COVID-19 pandemic, with the intention of it being the first chapter in a larger story based in the same near-future dystopian Australia that Mildenhall created in her novel.

The first time I decided I would cheat on my husband, our daughter had been missing for exactly eight days.

I was sitting alone in a café, watching the store’s Public Compliance Officer. He watched me back. He was a little on the short side for an Officer of the Department. Normally, whenever I was stopped in the street for an identity check it felt like they towered over me, looming like grey giants as they waited for their scanners to return a reading on my tracker, stiff and formal in their starched polyester and mirror-shine boots.

The Officer moved from his position in the doorway to my table and sat down without asking, resting his OMNI scanner on the table between us. I could see my face reflected in its black plastic case. I leaned back instinctively, away from the device. The bones of my shoulders dug into the soft padding of the chair and I swallowed, willing my breath back into a steady rhythm. His eyes never leave mine.

‘Emily Morgan?’

‘Yes. Officer Newport?’

‘Caleb, please.’

We weren’t yet used to each other. He eyed me with careful curiosity; quietly, softly, trying to get close without me baulking. I won’t – he has the power to end me with a push of the button on his radio – making a scene would not have worked in my favour here.

‘Caleb then,’ It felt strange calling an Officer by his first name, something the Department frowns upon heavily. Respect for authority shows good character.

I smile as warmly as I can muster, but I can’t forget that he is armed and I’m treading a line so thin I can almost feel the muzzle of his pistol hot on my temple. He smiles back, his features relaxing, and I let out a quiet breath. Clearly, I’ve passed my first test.

‘Want a coffee?’ He doesn’t wait for an answer and raises his hand, catching the attention of the barista behind the counter, who nods and starts to dose a fresh portafilter with ground beans.

We wait for the coffees to arrive, and I roll the thin gold ring on my finger, unsure how to fill the silence. His eyes never leave mine.

*          *          *

Three days before, a plain envelope had slid under the front door of my townhouse, telling me to meet Caleb at the café. PCOs were mostly on the straight and narrow; ex-military types who did whatever their superiors asked of them, but occasionally one could be found that was willing to bend the rules, for a price of course.

Wednesday 9am SHARP. Café cnr of Walsh & Sutton in District 4053. He knows where to find Ava.

Wednesday had taken a lifetime to arrive. It was still dark when I left James snoring softly in our bed but I knew I had to get ready and leave before he woke and started to ask questions. If this was what I needed to do to get our daughter back, I didn’t want it on his conscious as well as mine.

I padded down the hallway to the bathroom, shedding my pyjamas on the cold tiles. I entered the code into the OMNI panel on the wall next to the shower cubicle and waited.

BestLife Water Conservation Program > Access Granted. You have been allocated three minutes of clean water by the Department. Enjoy responsibly.

The lights on the edge of the panel blinked from red to green, and the shower sputtered to life. The hot water scalded my skin, but three minutes is not a long time, and I didn’t mind the sting.

*          *          *

I had bruises on my knees from where I’d fallen to them after I had received a phone call eight days ago from the Department, saying that Ava would not be coming home. Caleb ran his thumb over one of the bruises when he grasped my knee under the table and I flinched. He took my response as encouragement, and his hand began to travel further north. I caught the barista watching us behind the curls of steam rising from the espresso machine, and gently pressed down on Caleb’s hand.

‘Not here.’

For a moment his eyes darken and narrow. He might be smaller than most Officers, but he wasn’t used to being told no. Realising my error, I force myself to soften and lace my fingers through his instead.

‘I mean, let’s find somewhere a little more discrete, yes?’

We left the café, our coffees half-drunk and still warm, his grip tight around my arm.

*          *          *

Ava was mature beyond her eleven years; she’d already written the code for several games she’d designed as part of her Future Focused Technologies class at school. Her latest game, a simulation that saw its players learn how to develop and manage the most efficient energy grid using geothermal or photovoltaic solar power, had won first prize at the national Smart Minds, Smart Futures competition. I wasn’t exactly sure what photovoltaic solar power actually was, but she’d rolled her eyes when I’d jokingly asked if it had something to do with taking photographs of the sun.

‘Oh my God Memily, get with the program,’ she’d giggled. She always called me Memily, this strange mash-up of mum and Emily she’d found hilarious since she was four. So did I. James didn’t agree, thought it lacked a certain respect, but I let it slide. I don’t think she’s called me mum since.

Three months’ worth of Resource Tokens were credited to our household BestLife account as a thank you for her contribution to the country’s future and she, along with four other winners of the competition, were invited to District 2600, the central district for the Department’s operations, to receive a personal congratulations from the Prime Minister.

That was eight days ago.

She was a rake of a child, long-limbed and awkward, the product of eight years of life in a post-Lockout world. She was a pudgy-faced toddler when the virus first started to spread. In the first two years of the pandemic, it decimated poorer countries, places that didn’t have the infrastructure and public health systems to cope with the thousands of infected citizens pouring into their hospitals.

Wealthier countries were next, blindsided by their arrogance – the virus mutated to defeat each vaccine created. Europe, Russia, China, and the Middle East were all brought to their knees, one by one, and here in Australia we watched nervously, closing our borders to international arrivals for six months at first, then a year. The first few outbreaks we had were contained, but soon the cracks began to appear in the quarantine system, and the government was placed under increasing pressure to close the borders indefinitely. The government resisted, hesitant to lose what little trade partners and revenue they had left, but by then a new, more insidious contagion had begun to spread through our island nation – fear.

*          *          *

Caleb led me to an empty office building, not far from the café. Its windows were boarded shut, and a faded For Lease sign sagged against the door held by one determined nail, long forgotten by the real estate agent that had also shut their doors years ago. Real estate was a dead industry since BestLife rolled out across the country. Since all power and utilities had been disconnected from addresses outside of these Department-run communities, what was the point of buying a house?

He swiped his Department security pass across the dusty OMNI panel on the wall, and the door clicked open.

‘Ladies first,’ he gestured into the darkness beyond the door. I hesitated, glancing up at the corner of the building. The bulbous lens of the surveillance camera was pointing out towards the street, but surely it would catch us? Caleb followed my gaze.

‘Don’t worry about the cameras. The grid has been overloading recently, and they’ve got the cameras on rotation now to save power.’ He pointed to a small, pulsating orange light on the side of the camera. ‘See the light? When it’s orange like that it’s on standby.’

I felt his hand on the small of my back.

‘You’re safe. I promise.’

 In that moment, I felt less safe than I had ever felt in my life, but there was nothing to be gained by telling him that, so I smiled thinly and stepped into the darkness and prayed that he was right.

*          *          *

Prime Minister Garrison deflected the criticism at first, but with more outbreaks, and the economy sliding faster towards a full-blown financial crisis, the public’s confidence in his government eroded quickly, and the media turned its ear to whoever was loudly proclaiming the will of the masses.

Minister Sutton was a pale, hook-nosed creature, with deep hollows around his eyes and a permanent sheen to his bald head. He was so tall he seemed to curl over at the top, his shoulders burdened by the gravity pulling him to earth from such a height. A far-right faction member of the government, in normal times his calls to lock down the borders, move the infected to offshore facilities and to increase police and national security powers would have been largely ignored by the population. But people were scared, and these were, as the media kept reminding us, unprecedented times.

It all happened so quickly. Once his party realised his policies were gaining such rapid public support it took less than two hours in a party room meeting to remove Prime Minister Garrison from his office. There had been talk of a challenge, but that never eventuated. Garrison returned a positive virus test a few days later and was halfway to the offshore quarantine facility before the media even picked up on the story.

The Lockout began immediately, and support for the initiative was high to begin with. New outbreaks were contained and because Australia had effectively cut itself off from the rest of the world geographically, the virus was eliminated. Prime Minister Sutton, buoyed by his new-found popularity, declared the formation of a ‘new era’ of government, the all-encompassing Department.

The world looks very different to the world we have known, and the Sutton Government is committed to ensuring that the new Australia is one that is safe for all our citizens. We know the pandemic has hit our economy hard, the climate is rapidly changing, and there is an increased threat from the rest of the world; from places that haven’t fared as well in these unprecedented times. Therefore, we’re pleased to announce our new public safety program that will ensure all Australians have access to reliable, clean water and energy, housing, and a strong, dedicated police force. This program will ensure every Australian can live a safe and secure life – their BestLife.

*          *          *

Caleb moved from window to window, drawing the blinds and snapping them shut, making it even harder to see in the dim, dusty light of the abandoned office. I watched him closely, a sudden dryness in my throat. My wedding ring felt too heavy on my hand, each camber of gold too tight against my skin. I slid it off my hand and dropped it into the deep pocket of my coat.

‘You okay?’ His leaned against the desk in front of me, his arms folded across his chest. I nodded, too fast, and he smiled.

‘Shit Emily, relax. I’m not going to attack you.’

I must have looked confused because he chuckled.

‘Emily I’ve been running intel on the Department for three years or so now. The café is where I meet the ones I help. People like you.’ He moved past me, to the corner of the room, and ran his hand down the wall to a small metal loop around knee height.

‘That barista at the café? Department plant. Figured him out months ago.’ He laced his finger through the loop and pulled. The whole bottom section of the wall seemed to shudder and expand as he pulls it towards himself, revealing a large compartment built into the wall.  ‘If I made it look like I’m just a shithead PCO getting his rocks off on his morning break, he won’t report it.’

He shrugs.

‘So, I’ve got to keep the game up, right?’

But I’m only half listening. Standing there in the half-light, having emerged from the hidden compartment, is Ava. There’s so much that’s familiar about this girl in the shadows, but something has changed from the soft, awkward eleven year old I know. There’s a hardness there, something less than there was before.

For a split second she looks through me, empty-eyed; a facsimile of the girl I created, loved, risked everything for. Then she blinks, her eyes widen and she races towards me, into my arms.

‘Mum, I’m home.’

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