THE SHOAL By Jana Müller
DIESER TEXT AUF DEUTSCH
Another beautiful day! We are happy to inform you that from now on we shall be more successful in fulfilling your needs. By means of a completely new developed device, which you can wear like a bracelet, we are now capable of responding much better to...
"Beautiful day, Number 18!" "Beautiful day, Admiral. Hello Number Six!"
... your desires and needs even before they...
Number Six was heavily poring over a difficult move. He looked up briefly, smiling. Then he turned to the chess board again.
"Who's the winner?"
... in order and for the benefit of our Community...
"That depends. The right one."
Number Six made his decision and moved his piece. Number 18 was looking on curiously. "A good move?" she asked the Admiral, who was respectfully observing the chess board in silence. "That depends. The right one." It was Number Six replying instead of the Admiral, who was smiling. Next, he continued his tactical deliberations.
Every single one of you counts. Help us to keep you satisfied so that...
"Such nonsense" he growled, before making his move."You don't believe what can be done nowadays, do you? Unbelievable, isn't it?"
"Isn't it?" Number 18 was gone.
"I'm going to get me one of those bracelets. What about you?"
"What d'you mean?" "Well, you - just you...! Shouldn't it be you who'd be interested in that thing? Honestly, isn't it you who's always intent on having one's needs respected?"
"That is what I want?"
"Why? My needs are my own business."
"But you'd allow them to be fulfilled, wouldn't you?"
"And my need for privacy? What about that? What about secrets? Answers? Are they being respected?"
"You are a die-hard."
It is strongly advised that every Village citizen wear the Community Tie-in. Not wearing the Community Tie-in may lead to a shortage in the supply of everyday goods. In addition, not integrating each individual into the community will mean doing harm to your community and therefore to yourself. Any questions? Read the manual!"
Repeat - Wearing of the...
"You see! It is a rather useless debate, isn't it."
"Who says so?" "Whoever. Number Two, if you like. Or else your beloved Number One. As a matter of fact you are going to have to wear it, too, like any other person here. And whether you want it or not, you'll also receive its benefits like everyone else."
"I am not going to wear it. Another game?"
"Go ahead!" "
Spontaneously, as always, Number Two appeared in Number Six’s kitchen, as he was about to prepare his morning tea.
"Good day, my dear Six! Have a good sleep?" He could tell Number Six was trying to ignore him. But what he did notice was the near transparent bracelet on the other's wrist. Six continued with his tea making.
"Will you prepare one for me, too?"
"Serve yourself! My home is your home. You're familiar with all this here."
"Thank you! You're very kind." While Number Two was preparing his tea Number Six kept observing him from the living room out of the corner of his eye. The bracelet was slightly pulsating.
"It's the bracelet you're interested in, isn't it?" Smiling Number Two turned to him. "The Community Tie-in. Worth a look - here!"
From his pocket he pulled a simple device, like a small monitor.
"Look, this is the receiver module. It shows that at this very moment my wish is to have... tea. And a little chat with you. This scale here indicates my desire for communication. The other one here – indicates when I'm thirsty. And according to my known preferences the device is also capable of making suggestions as to what kind of drink I'd prefer..."
"... and it has all my data stored, as to my likings, hobbies, dislikes, allergies, friends and so on. It is also capable of learning. It will remember when you change. Or want to change. It will respond to changes. It..."
"I pretty well know myself what I want. No need to read it in your, in my files."
"That is all you know."
"Actually, I'd very much like to be left alone at the moment."
"Oh yes! Certainly. But here's something I've got for you."
"I'm not surprised."
"You must wear it."
Number Six glanced at the small monitor screen.
"Because you want me to?"
"No, no my dear chap! Because you want to."
On the table he then placed a yellowish plastic ribbon bearing the words "Number Six".
"... and what about my receiver module?"
Laughing, Number Two left his home.
Alone again, or rather, when Number Two was no longer physically inviting himself to his apartment, Number Six sat down comfortably in his recliner chair. His thoughts were spinning: quite obviously, by no means would it be the intention of the Village just to improve the food supply with that gadget, presently still lying on his kitchen worktop. Troubling him even more was the question as to what Number Two might have in mind in making him wear the ribbon. Gesticulating "Be seeing you!" towards his TV set he rose from his seat, took the wrist band and threw it into the waste bin, before going back to his living room in order to wait. According to past experience he would soon be finding out what they had in mind.
Surprisingly, after one or two hours of waiting nobody had shown up to instruct or enlighten him one way or the other and so Six left his cottage for a walk, intending to ask around a bit. He approached the Tally Ho newspaper stand, where, strangely, the young male vendor was silent, but with a big smile across his face, as Six tore his edition from the roll. The youth duly punched his customer’s credit card and Six read the headlines:
YOUR COMMUNITY CHOICE HAS BEEN MADE. NUMBER SIX, THE MOST INTERESTING VILLAGER AFTER NUMBER TWO!
"An interesting study, dear fellow readers, accomplished after analysing your Community Tie-ins has revealed Number Six to be the individual who is the most interesting among the citizens in our community, second only to Number Two. So far only a remaining 13 Villagers have yet to access his profile, as stored on our database!"
Not batting an eyelid, Six merely skimmed the article, before dumping the paper into the nearest waste receptacle. He walked over to the café intuitively knowing he would not be alone for long. And he was right. The moment he arrived everybody turned their heads towards him. Some people were smiling, others looked as if impression as if they were trying to gauge his mental state. When he sat down the waitress promptly showed up at his table, serving him a cup of flavoursome tea.
"Didn't order tea", he remarked, as politely as possible. A formality, of course.
"Oh, never mind, Number Six! Number Two wishes you to join him."
"Come and sit down here, my friend!"
Responding rather sourly to her timid smile, Six changed his seat, leaving the tea untouched. Number Two greeted him with the familiar salute.
"What have I done to deserve this?"
"You read the newspaper, didn't you?"
"Should I have done?"
"It looked like you did. Honestly, I'm not surprised. But..." He paused until Number Six looked at him again. "... you'll certainly understand that I need to keep an eye on you, my dear friend. Bearing in mind what I've... - another dramatic pause - "...read in your profile record."
Number Six was looking amused, causing Number Two to become more specific.
"You are not wearing your bracelet I see."
"Well then… you know I'll have to check the correctness of your data myself. Unless you do it."
"You don't know what I'm talking about - get the bracelet, put it on! And read the manual." Number Two stood up. Before leaving the café he placed the plastic bracelet on the table.
"You've lost this. Take it. Be seeing you!"
"Certainly", Number Six replied with forced amiability. Then he headed for the beach.
Number 18 was waving avidly to him from the Stone Boat.
"Hello Number 18." She was excited and drew closer to him.
"Is it true that you like cats? I wouldn't have expected you to be a pet lover. It's a pity no one here's allowed to keep them. Those Community Tie-ins - what a splendid idea! All of a sudden we get to know each other much better than before."
"Maybe the rules will be changed, now that many of the Villagers would like to have pets."
"We've formed a new group, all cat lovers. And of course we'd be very pleased to have you..."
"The answer is no. It cannot be done, for technical reasons." He presented his bare wrists to the young woman and left her standing, nonplussed..
After several similar chats, inviting him to join the chess lovers, or the Bizet group, Six became tired of it all and strolled back to his home, without having met the Admiral nor any of those brave thirteen Villagers who apparently hadn't read his "profile record", whatever the content. Instead he had come to experience that, aside from cats, chess and Bizet, he liked black tea, black suits, ham and eggs. He was also said to share two or three of his preferences with Number Two and some more with his neighbours he had just spoken with. So far, no statements or predilections had been revealed which Number Two might have considered potentially compromising; at least, so Number Six thought. However, some of his acquaintances had been seemed to be talking to him in a knowing manner, with a twinkling in their eye.
Four workers dressed in blue were busy erecting a huge display screen in front of Six’s cottage window. "Just what is it that you're doing?"
"One more step in the ‘New Openness’ programme."
"Ought to check your messages more frequently! Evaluation of the Community Tie-ins has shown what the Villagers want most of all: getting to know more about each other. Well, Number Two decided to help you with this display, to make it easier for you to get combined information. For people who won’t carry their receiver modules with them all the time."
"Right in front of my window!"
"That's where we were told to set it up." Number 168, the man in blue, turned to his work again.
The display was soon in operation. A giant superimposed image of the Tally Ho appeared on it, the issue of the day being his profile. Overnight he had passed Number Two, now being the most interesting Villager. The first thing readers read was that Number Six liked chess, music, tea, black suits and ham and eggs. As for the cats he seemed to have changed his mind. Tagged on at the end was a collection of favourite quotes, starting with:
"I am a number! I am a free man!"
He read it once, then read the sentence for a second time. One word was definitely missing. More of his quotes had been considerably adjusted, too. "I wouldn't want to be stamped", he noticed, as well as: "Unlike me, many of you have not accepted the situation of your imprisonment and will die here."
"That's presumably what you were talking about when you said you'd take care of my profile? I could have known."
He whispered the words angrily to himself. However, Number Two must have been waiting to spot any of his reactions. Via Six’s TV set came the immediate response:
"Now, all we want is make sure people get to know about your true mental attitude. Don't you think? If really it is that interesting."
"My true attitude..."
"Nothing but the truth for our citizens."
"...is that I am not going to be a part of this game. I AM NOT A NUMBER!"
"Look, Number Six, you do know as well as I do that what's displayed on that board is reality, becomes reality. Reality is truth. You don't want it displayed - remove it!"
And although he knew the answer anyway he asked:
"Put the bracelet on. It’s as easy as that!"
"You and I, both of us know you're going to do it. You must. In the end."
"Why don’t you just coerce me?"
"Your choice, but you must live with the consequences."
Number Six broke off the connection.
Live with the consequences. That's what he always did. Six went down to the beach. The weather was again sunny and warm with a slight wind providing some relief. But the Village had changed. Display screens were now all around. In front of them people were standing in small groups all appearing to be much more active than before. It seemed that everybody was wanting to talk with him. Apparently he was readily sharing hobbies, interests, likes and thoughts with virtually everybody around. He, in turn, was thought of by his fellow inmates as being communicative and liked by all. It shouldn't be too difficult to keep this particular false impression alive. Although he disliked doing do, all he had to do was to deliver an occasional nod and smile. In this way he was able to gather some quite useful information. And he was aware of what he had to do.
In his control room Number Two was smiling contentedly.
In the kitchen Six was about to prepare his dinner which consisted of neither ham, eggs nor tea. He'd put the radio receiver into the fridge and the TV set was standing with its front to the wall now. The peace wouldn’t last long he knew and he intended to enjoy every moment of the present quietness. Unfortunately, he heard the familiar humming of the door opening before he had even started dining. He did not look up.
"Good evening, Number Six."
"Um, I want to get down to business right away. Suppose you've changed your mind?" he put the bracelet on the kitchen worktop.
"Changed my mind - what for?"
"Are you going to wear the bracelet?"
"What do you think?"
"People believe what they read, you know."
"I don't care what people think."
"Number Six, we have our methods." As if to underline his statement two of the men who had entered along with Number Two took stood to attention behind him. One more was paused in front of him, visibly preparing a hypodermic syringe.
"Do I really have to tell you? The choice is yours. Put the bracelet on, right here and now. Otherwise we'll have to do it in the Hospital, under sedation." He faced his subject in a challenging way. "Now...?""
A few moments passed and then Number Six slightly bowed his head. Number Two immediately grabbed his arm and put the bracelet on it. It coiled tightly around his wrist and a faint buzzing could be heard.
"Why is it always necessary for you to be requested formally? You can lead a horse to the water but you can't make it drink. Number Fifty Eight, give Number Six the manual and the receiver! We are going to leave him on his own."
"Let us please joyfully welcome another new day. Let us welcome the New Openness!" exclaimed the female weather announcer the next day.
Do share your likings with others. Help us to respond better to your personal needs! Show yourself and others who you are! Be a character! It is all enabled by your Community Tie-in! And don't forget: your needs are the needs of the community. It's another warm and sunny morning. Enjoy!
There had been no sleep for Number Six. He had become more used to wearing the bracelet and after a couple of attempts he succeeded in retrieving the lost word "not" from one of his quotes. The bracelet had also given him quite a headache, always humming and clinging tightly to his wrist, impairing his circulation and making his hand feel numb. All this was accompanied by some jolts of pain that felt like minor electrical shocks. As proposed by his mood barometer he drank some water and kept listening to the continuous music, courtesy of Number Two. He was feeling a little more relaxed, having managed to salvage the word "not", but only to find moments later that his quote had completely disappeared from the display screen. According to the manual, this was an indication of his loss of popularity, caused by that particular thought. The idea as to why this should be so crossed his mind.
He applied his mind to what things incited him most. It would going to be a rather dangerous experiment to start, he was aware of that, but he had to take the risk. He sat down comfortably in his recliner chair concentrating fully on forming a strong desire to leave his home after curfew time, to walk on the beach and go swimming. The outcome was intense and unpleasant. He could hear Rover taking position in front of his cottage. With an effort he got up and stood facing the TV set. "Don't panic. Message received", he said dryly. Immediately, the pain in his arm subsided and Six began browsing the manual.
In the coming days, Six began to get more interested in the profiles of his new "friends", studying their profile records. He joined various groups, first and tentatively the association of tea lovers. He was rewarded by the bracelet through some warm prickling which spread throughout his body and made him laugh. Oh yes, several quite enjoyable days were coming. The smile on his face was true but his eyes spoke volumes.
More days passed.
"Why fish, Number Six?" the Admiral asked him with interest. The chess board was standing between the two of them on a small table.
"Why not? Watching fish is fascinating, seeing their perfect harmony and their being mutually attuned."
"You're quite right. But, I would never have expected something like this from you, Number Six. Seeing you as the one to promote the most recent fashion, perhaps. But fish...! Anyway, good to read from your profile again. Don't you care that you've lost the position as the most popular Villager and your name isn't even now mentioned regularly on the displays?"
"Why should I mind?"
"It matters, doesn't it?"
Number Six smiled and moved his piece.
Number Two was already waiting when Six returned home. He remained unmoved, walking into the kitchen to prepare his dinner.
"Hello Number Six!"
"Time for a little conversation, I feel."
"Very interesting to observe, Number Six." Number Two rose from the armchair where he had been sitting and walked over to the large aquarium which had been set up on the kitchen worktop. "No, it is downright thrilling to see how you've come to adopt the Community tie-in. The aquarium... I hope everything's according to your wishes!"
Smiling Number Six sat at the dining table.
"Enjoy your meal!"
"Won’t you help yourself to something?"
"No, thank you. I'm not hungry. I came for a very special reason. Your change in attitude is what I find striking. Gone is the lone wolf and in his place enter Village citizen number one! You've become a member in every available group and fan club. Apparently there's nothing you dislike. You eat everything, drink everything, want everything, hear everything. Am I missing something? What's more, you're part of any new trend to arise, even those that I've created. I mean I'm flattered but..."
There was no reaction from Number Six. Number Two continued after a short while having observed Number Six very closely.
"I believe, Number Six, there's something you have in mind. Frankly, I think you are scheming. I cannot take your conversion seriously."
"I’m sorry about that."
"So what is it?"
"It's nothing, Number Two. I enjoy life and the little pleasures that this bracelet is giving me. Openness and communication. I help you to respond to my needs more appropriately. I show a sense of community and character. Isn’t this what you want?" He took a sip of his drink. "There’s a lesson I’ve learned; those fish have been demonstrating and symbolising something. It's the beauty of the shoal. Each individual perfectly adapts to the whole group, while sharing one single direction. This is what fascinates me."
Number Six' eyes were twinkling. Number Two got up suddenly and headed for the door.
"There is something you're up to. And I'm going to find out what it is."
"Well, if that's what you think..."
"I... know. Be seeing you!"
"Be seeing you!"
Back in the Control Room Number Two and his Supervisor were talking.
"He's doing exactly what we could ever have wished for. He does everything we suggested to the citizens. EVERYTHING."
"But - you'd agree there's something wrong about it."
"Well, yes. Yes. There isn't a match. It isn't matching what we used to know about him so far, or believed we knew."
"He is scheming. All this poppycock about the fish... I don't like that. Him talking about shoals... It has taken five days for him to go public with aspects of his own individual profile. And now it's all about fish, ha! Slippery as an eel, that's what he is! Slippery and with no profile at all. Likes everything, knows everything, wants everything. Not him! Number Six isn't like this. And I think THAT'S what he's up to! He believes he can evade us. He's playing with us, giving us the runaround!"
"Well, it might appear that you’ve overreached yourself. Others in your position could only have dreamed of what you've accomplished – the only thing is it's too consummately a success. Meanwhile other Villagers have come to follow in his footsteps, regarding him as a prime role model in the community. More and more inmates are randomly joining all and any groups..."
"Yes, yes, thank you. I know. The good thing about it is that we've never ever been in possession of such a huge quantity of data covering our usual and constant concerns."
"Absolutely. So what is your suggestion?"
Number Two was contemplating the CCTV image of Number Six's home. He brought the palm of his hand hard on the table.
"The bracelet thinks all his efforts are conducive to the community. But, being just one little fish in a large pond isn't something I think he could endure for a long period of time. It's contrary to his temperament. He'll stray off course sooner or later. I think I know what we must do."
"What about all the requests we’ve had for more aquariums? People like the idea. As many as forty have registered interest in having one."
"Go ahead, place the order for the number needed! There's something compliant about fish. No resistance from them, ever! The only question is what is it that Number Six is going to propose tomorrow? Come on, let's go fishing! Mustn’t let the lead fish get thrown off its course."
Next morning, knowing that Number Two was suspicious, Number Six thought it best to take the next step in his plan immediately. He focused his thoughts on the very last but well conceived move. He founded a new group: friends of Rover.
"Let us honour the one who's spirit aligns perfectly in great harmony with that of the Village."
His message went out to all groups he was in contact with, which was literally everyone. During the past few days he had come to develop a well practised routine in delivering empty phrases, to the extent that he made himself nervous. Some forty users had already supported his "aquariums for all" initiative. And so he went boldly on:
"LET US HONOUR ROVER! Shunned by almost everyone he's the one who, in the end, is also the one representing the main characteristic of the Village, one which we all admire most: perfection. The Village of perfection, embodied in our friend’s circular and spherical shape."
He needed to pause here because he'd rather lost the plot. Besides he needed not to reveal himself by generating too much sarcasm in his words.
"Why should we fear perfection?" he continued. "Why should we be afraid of Rover? Let us honour him. Let us found a new group dedicated solely to the appreciation of this immaculate fellow citizen! Let's abandon our fear and let us devote ourselves to Rover!"
That should have been enough. At last it was worth a try. Now all he could do was to keep waiting.
He didn't have to wait long. Within a few minutes Number Two was standing on his threshold applauding him.
"At last, Number Six. You've indeed betrayed everything you've been keeping in such high esteem. Congratulations, Number Six, eventually you did it! How does it feel?"
In the background four guards entered the room. Number Six was smiling but remained silent. Three of the guards were holding him tight, the fourth one pointing a neutraliser at him while Number Two removed the bracelet from his wrist.
"A shame, really, nobody around to witness your, um, declaration of love."
He was looking directly into Number Six's eyes. "A real shame."
Original story by Jana Müller (2011), translated by Arno Baumgärtel;
thanks to Roger Langley for providing the linguistic corrections!