There was a knock at the door.
Rachel looked up from her computer, frowning, her long, ponytailed hair swinging behind her head. Was she expecting someone? She didn’t think so, although it was hard to remember. Since her promotion she’d had so much on her mind she’d already forgotten two separate appointments, but that was alright, she was finally on her way. Maybe even her mother would leave her alone now.
The knock came again, and it was followed by a voice that made her blood freeze instantly.
‘THIS IS THE H.E.D. WE REQUIRE THAT YOU OPEN YOUR RESIDENCE TO US, PLEASE COMPLY.’
The voice was harsh, metallic, and held no human warmth. It was the sound of the Health Enforcement Department’s robotic police. She knew it all too well from her daily visits to the gym; that metallic growl that barked orders at puffing, red-faced and miserable people, ensuring that they got their prescribed exercise to reach the Norm. Rachel felt her heartbeat jump as she realized what had happened, why they were there. No, it couldn’t be right, she was so careful, she made sure she never deviated outside the boundaries. Sure she was always sitting close to the top of them, always just a little fitter, a little healthier than what was officially considered the Norm, but it was within the tolerances, she was sure it was… wasn’t she?
The knock again, harder.
‘THIS IS YOUR FINAL WARNING. IF YOU DO NOT OPEN YOUR RESIDENCE, WE WILL USE FORCE TO GAIN ACCESS, PLEASE COMPLY.’
‘I’m coming! Just wait alright?’ Rachel shouted to the door, her voice thin and shaky as she stood. She made her way to the door, her eyes glancing around the chic white plastic and black tile of her apartment kitchen, looking for some way to get out of the situation. She opened the door, and there before her stood the tall, angular form of the H.E.D. bot. It was over a foot taller than her, disturbingly humanoid, but all angles and finely tuned hydraulics. It had a single camera in the center of their forehead which shone dully in the overhead lighting of the corridor, its gaze dispassionate, inhuman.
‘PLEASE STATE YOUR NAME.’ said the bot, its camera focusing on her face. She knew it would be reading her facial lines, checking it against the central database, as well as accessing the data her implant was broadcasting. There was no lying to the H.E.D.
‘R-Rachel Waits.’ she stuttered, annoyed that she was so afraid but unable to control it.
‘CITIZEN WAITS, ON THE DATE OF THE FOURTEENTH OF JULY OF THIS YEAR, YOUR STANDARD ISSUE H.E.D. MONITORING IMPLANT MEASURED YOUR HEALTH TO BE ZERO-POINT-FIVE-ONE OVER THE LEGAL NORM AND HAS CONTINUED REGISTERING SIMILAR LEVELS SINCE.’
Rachel’s mind flickered to that date, what had she been doing? Then she remembered. Last week. It had been a hard day at work, Tom had made a comment about her gaining weight… She had run ten miles on the treadmill that night and had revitalized her diet… Why hadn’t she checked her numbers before then? Stupid girl!
‘IN ACCORDANCE WITH H.E.D. RULES,’ the bot continued, breaking her train of thought, ‘AND UNDER ARTICLE NINE OF THE NEW CONSTITUTION, WE HEREBY DECLARE YOU TO HAVE ONE STRIKE, AND WE WILL PROCEED TO RECTIFY YOUR DEVIATION. PLEASE COMPLY.’
Without any other warning, the bot reached out and clasped her shoulder in cold, metal fingers, turned her about and marched her back into her flat. She gasped in pain at the harsh grip and felt herself grow angry, how dare they do this to her? Everything was just starting to go her way!
‘Get the fuck off of me!’ she cried, struggling loose and glaring at the bot as it towered over her.
Its camera looked at her blankly, but it didn’t reach out to take hold of her again.
‘YOUR RECTIFICATION REQUIRES INCREASED CALORIE INTAKE AND CESSATION OF EXERCISE.’ it droned, ‘YOUR IMPLANT STATES THAT YOU HAVE AN ONE THOUSAND CALORIE DEFICIT STILL TO FILL FOR THIS DAY. GOVERNMENT ISSUED CALORIE PACKS ARE RECOMMENDED. PLEASE COMPLY.’
She turned away from the bot to look at a cupboard door at the far end of her kitchen, where inside sat a legally required set of high-calorie foods designed to increase the fat percentage and slow the metabolism. Just thinking about eating them made her feel sick. All that food, all those calories…
‘I’m not hungry.’ she said, hating the petulant sound of her voice, ‘I’ll start tomorrow.’
‘NOT ACCEPTABLE, RECTIFICATION MUST BEGIN IMMEDIATELY. PLEASE COMPLY.’
‘I told you, I’m not hungry! How can I eat if I’m not hungry?’ She asked, feeling increasingly frustrated. They didn’t understand! This would ruin her, after all, her hard work… Somewhere in her memory she heard chanting and felt the bruises again.
‘NOT ACCEPTABLE. PLEASE COMPLY.’
‘No! Who do you think you are, just walking in here and ordering me about you fucking tin can? Send down a real human being who I can talk to! I won’t eat anything today, do you understand?’
The robot was silent, its eye static. Rachel took a deep breath, steadying herself. Well, that wasn’t so bad, and now she could think of a way to get out of this tomorrow as well.
The robot suddenly jerked and another pair of arms folded out from its back, giving it an insectile look that causes a wave of revulsion in her.
‘CITIZEN WAITS, RECTIFICATION WILL BEGIN IMMEDIATELY, PLEASE COMPLY.’ it said, and with terrifying speed, it lunged forward with the four arms and grabbed her.
Rachel screamed as its fingers bit into her flesh, and struggled in vain against it as it pushed her backward until she was lying on the floor, staring wide-eyed up at the blank orb of the camera.
‘Stop! No please, stop! I’ll eat! I swear I will!’ she yelled, the animal terror of being trapped now taking over.
It didn’t respond, and instead moved the lower set of arms down to clasp her ankles and hold her legs tightly together. A small arm extended out from the bot’s chest and like a striking snake, darted forward to take hold of her head, its spread covering her face. Harsh metal fingers pressed on her eyes so she shut them, and was plunged into a dark world where there was only the hydraulic sound of the bot adjusting for her struggling form, and an oily, ozone smell from the hand crushing her face.. There was a whirr of moving parts, and she felt a hard rubbery object pressing on her lips. She struggled and spat, trying to avoid it, but the hand on her face held her firm, and the object was pushed, inexorably into her mouth. When it was in, it quickly wound open, prying her jaw open so wide she thought it would dislocate. Her screams were little more than watery chokes now, her struggles giving way to a horrified paralysis. She knew what was coming next, had heard the stories, but had never believed it was true. The first she knew of the feeding tube was when she felt it scrape the back of her throat. It made her gag instantly, but the bot didn’t stop, instead of pushing it deeper into her gullet. Rachel could feel it tearing at her flesh as it moved further and further down, she continued gagging although nothing came up. It was almost impossible to breathe, it felt like being suffocated and drowning at the same time. There was a hum from somewhere on the bot, and she felt a sickening warmth begin to spread in her stomach as the machine pumped high-calorie food into her. Almost immediately she felt like she was going to vomit, but felt like if she did, she’d drown. She swallowed again and again, trying to keep it down, feeling tears pooling in her eyes. Why was this happening? Why now? What had she done to deserve this? It had all been going so well...
Rachel didn’t know how long the process took, but it felt like an age she was trapped on the cold tiles of her kitchen floor, her stomach being pumped full of food she didn’t want by the bot. Eventually, though, it stopped. The feeding tube was withdrawn from her stomach and out of her mouth, making her choke and gag again as it went. The cold metal hands released their hold on her, and the bot stood again, gazing placidly down at her.
‘RECTIFICATION PROCEDURE COMPLETE.’ it buzzed, ‘THIS UNIT WILL ENSURE COMPLIANCE UNTIL FULL RECTIFICATION REACHED, PLEASE COMPLY.’
Rachel ignored it as a coughing fit took hold of her. She stood up unsteadily and stumbled past the machine in her kitchen, down the short hallway and into her bedroom where she shut and locked the door. Once inside she staggered over to her bed and threw herself onto it, grabbing a pillow and hugging it tight to her body as she felt herself begin to cry. The sobs hurt her already injured throat, and every movement made her full stomach shift and slosh in a nausea-inducing way. Still, she cried and cried until the tears didn’t come any more and she could think clearly again.
Unconsciously she found herself tracing the small, pale patch of skin that was the only reminder of where the implant was put in. Even now it would be sending her biological data, everything that could be measured in the human body, to the H.E.D. where it would be analyzed and measured against the government assigned “Normal Health Level” alongside every single other person in the country. It had been such an exciting day for her when she was able to get it, fourteen and finally ready to become an adult. She’d worked so hard to reach the Norm before she even got the implant, even though she’d have six months once it was put in to do so. Rachel remembered seeing all the boys from her school suddenly paying attention to her, the behind-the-hands giggling and shouts of “fatty” slowly disappearing and being replaced with subtle, or not so subtle, stares. Some were jealous, some admiring, some lustful, but she saw and loved them all. Getting the implant had been her awakening, the beginning of her climb. Of course, the Norm was all about unity, and so you couldn’t go too far either way, not healthy enough, that was a strike, too healthy that was… well, she put a hand to her overfull stomach, a strike as well. How had she let this happen? She had had it under control! She knew the tolerances, she knew how to sit just under the limit, was an expert at it. Why had she allowed herself to slip?
Fatty! Echoed in her mind.
Rachel shook her head, trying to bring her mind into line, trying not to think about the tube… the darkness. She was being rectified for being too healthy, but, obviously, resisting wouldn’t do much for her here, so the best thing was, instead of fighting. Instead she’d just go with it. Get it over with as quickly as possible, so she could take back control again. Yes, that was the way, definitely. Just a temporary lapse, nothing to worry about. Nothing to worry about. She told herself that as she fell asleep, trying to ignore the panic that began to form, spiky and hot, in her chest as she remembered that three strikes meant punishment.
Six months later, she stood in front of her full-length mirror and took in the sight of her “rectified” body. The H.E.D. bot had left the night before, its work done, her health now reinstated to the Norm once again. She prodded the protruding belly that had begun to form and watched it jiggle, disgusted. Rachel couldn’t remember a time she’d felt more ugly in her life before the implant. If there was an upside to all of this, it was that she had been forced to work from home and so didn’t have to deal with the social stigma of being rectified as well as putting on weight. There had been rectifications in the office before, usually with people becoming too unhealthy, and the strikes never left them. It was almost as if the fear of what it meant to have a strike, as if it was catching, meant people gravitated away from those who had it. Rachel had only known one person to be punished, it had been a woman in the office, middle aged, and had a bad habit of eating her feelings. After her divorce, she just hadn’t been able to keep it together, and the weight had just kept piling on. The H.E.D. bot assigned to her had made everyone in the office nervous, with its droning voice and insect-like eye. So when she disappeared one day, it was almost a relief. It was only later that they discovered she had been punished. One of the other staff had bumped into her on the street. They couldn’t describe what was wrong with her, but they said she just… wasn’t the same. A month later Rachel heard she had moved out of the city, but there was a rumor she had committed suicide instead. At the time she hadn’t thought much of it more than a distant sympathy. It was a shame, but how could it be helped when you didn’t stick to the norm? Now, though… now she began to understand. For the first time in her life she looked down at the implant scar, and she felt fear rather than mere apathy. Reaching behind her she pulled a black dress from her bed and held it up in front of her. It wasn’t flattering, or particularly fashionable, but it would hide her figure and the bruises that she still had from the bot. Couldn’t have mother worrying now, could we? No, definitely not.
She met her mother in a hotel restaurant at the top of a towering skyscraper that stretched dizzyingly into the skies, its sides covered in the flickering neon of holographic advertising pushing the latest implant accessories and government information.
‘Don’t just stick to the Norm, set the Norm with the Jetz implant monitor.’ ‘Remember citizens, sticking to the Norm isn’t just good for you, it’s good for the country!’
The adverts, ones she herself had helped to create, now sickened her and she turned away from the window as her mother’s voice filtered through the fog in her brain. ‘Rachel? Rachel! Are you listening to me?’ came her voice, nasal, and nagging, just as she remembered.
‘Of course, I am mom.’ she responded, automatically.
Her mother was a short, severe looking woman with small, darting eyes and an air of being permanently displeased with the world around her.
‘I was saying that Tammy Windemere has just married a doctor, a neurosurgeon even. You could stand to learn a thing or two from her.’ her eyes cast a withering look up and down her daughter. ‘I don’t have time for a boyfriend at the moment mom, we’ve talked about this…’ usually her mother’s ridiculous demands just annoyed her, and there was sport to be found in fighting it, but at the moment it just made her exhausted.
‘Well, looking like that you’re not going to get one worth a damn anyways. What’s your score?’
‘I’ll tell you again Rachel, a woman has to take care of herself. Just because you’re in the Norm is not an excuse for not making the effort.’
‘Mom! I was… I got a strike…’ she hadn’t meant to say it, but it had just fallen out of her mouth. She wanted to tell someone, to make it real, to feel that someone realized her fear.
‘Oh my darling... ‘ said her mother soothingly, ‘It’s okay, all of us have had a strike for letting ourselves go at some point.’
‘How about you let me order for you today, hm?’
Rachel looked at her mother and saw that, as always, there was no comfort to be had here. She just nodded silently and went back to looking out at the bright, blaring figures on the holographic billboards as her mother ordered her a salad, no dressing, no sides.
Later that evening she found herself at home, once again in front of the mirror, feeling her belly as the pizza and chocolate she’d gorged herself on digested. She hated herself, but the comfort she found in the food was too much to resist. After so long controlling her diet, watching everything she ate, obsessing over the gym, there was something so freeing about telling it all to go fuck itself. Her score was still within the Norm, although she knew that she’d have to start being careful again soon. The anxious knot that had formed on that first night with the bot was now an ever-present stone inside her, making her hackles rise, like a bad taste she couldn’t get out of her mouth. Why had she ever bothered to try so hard anyway? What had it got her, except a strike because she had succeeded too well? The memory of the knock on the door brought back a brief moment of panic to her again, but it quickly got lost in the tarry, lethargic mix of emotions that was starting to form deep inside her. She checked her health score, she was almost exactly on the Norm at the moment. It was fine, she’d get back on the horse, and just be more careful this time… starting tomorrow.
There was a knock at the door.