The Mart, New York City, New York
She walked the aisles, ocularly scouring each one, staring at every item, all the while knowing that it was none of these things she would leave with. She had decided before she had come what she was getting for her husband, but she played out the game anyway, knowing that the manager watched her intently through the surrounding video cameras. He was waiting to see what his next best-selling item would be.
She pictured the manager in her mind, sweat beading on his forehead, nervously clasping and unclasping his hands in front of him, willing her to make a purchase. What would it be? A gold-plated steno-pen that memorized your handwriting style and wrote what you told it to without anybody touching it? A new, solid gold hair-replacement brush that measured how much hair one lost and dispensed the appropriate amount of treatment and regrowth solution as you used it? A new flat-screen entertainment console? She pictured the manager’s breath catching as she stopped in front of the "televisions", as they used to be called, reaching out and fingering the cardboard-thin screen of one of the newest models publicly available. Her lips twisted into the briefest of smiles as she considered the fact that unknown to some, they already had the next generation of touchscreen-enabled, voice-enabled entertainment consoles (so called because they did everything a television, computer, smart phone, and gaming console combined could do) in every room of their mansion; a paper-thin model that could be rolled up and stuffed in a tube like a poster if so desired. She had never personally had the desire to do so and saw little point to it, but as her husband liked to point out, it was "progress", and "progress" was always good.
Thinking of her husband made the thought of a smile fade. She knew she should consider herself fortunate to be married to him. Many people would kill to be in her position, just as she had to gain the position in the first place. He had money and power, and now she shared that money and power with him. There was no hatred in their marriage, and neither was there any love. For love, or the closest thing to love that money could by, they both went elsewhere. She was okay with that; she got what she wanted from the partnership. Still, she must keep up appearances, such as giving him a gift during the holidays. She had ordered her two daughters their gifts already, but she preferred to make it look like what she bought for her husband was hand-picked the old-fashioned way, from a store. Somehow, it came off as more personal, and made for better publicity.
She approached the aisle containing books, and then turned away. It depressed her to look at them, meager as the selection was, with the vast populace preferring to read their books electronically or have them electronically read to them. After the law passed several years back banning the sale and distribution of books containing more than 10,000 words, she had nearly given up on reading. It was mostly pointless twaddle on the shelves anyway, and not worth her time. Give her Ray Bradbury or George Orwell any day of the week; even the "Approved" editions, sorely abridged as they were, were better than the majority of cheap romance novellas and crappy graphic novels that proliferated society in the present day. It was the one part of the new way of things that she occasionally, very occasionally, regretted, despite knowing its necessity for the "greater good".
Finally, she approached the target of her quest. She skimmed past the plethora of digital timepieces and smart watches, until her eyes settled on something that was round and shiny, not fitting in with its modern rectangular or square counterparts. She let the gold watch lay in the palm of her hand, absorbing every detail of the elegant railroad scene engraved into it. She held it to her ear, and listened to the steadfast noise of its tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. Using her other hand, she carefully triggered the opening mechanism, and it sprang open like an oyster. She stared in awe as the second hand darted in little circles in front of her, and as the minute hand crept after it in synchronization. It was perfect.
She approached the counter. As she did so, she watched without seeming to take notice as a portly middle-aged man, whom she identified as the manager, hurried from the back room, practically pushing the only cashier in a sea of automated checkout machines out of the way with some succinct whispered orders. He adjusted the collar of the tailor-fit shirt that sought to hide his bulging midsection, and then smoothed his hand across his balding pate as if to place back in order the few hairs remaining. Apparently, he could use a hair-replacement brush himself, she thought sardonically. She strode up to him with purpose.
"Welcome to The Mart, and I must say what a great honor it is…" he babbled, but she interrupted him before he really got started. She knew from experience that if left to his own devices, he could go on for hours.
"I would like to have this engraved with a message and gift wrapped before I go." Her voice was soft, but authoritative and direct.
"But of course! Of course! Anything at all for my favorite and most important customer. What would you like the message to say?" He stretched out his flabby hand and took the watch from her, scanning the barcode on the attached tag. The engraver was informed that he was needed via the electronic brain monitoring the store, which recorded and processed every movement seen through the cameras and every word spoken. The vast computer system used algorithms to predict the outcome often before it even happened, relaying the information to the smartphones or smart watches of those who needed to know in the form of a text. Every business establishment was equipped in this fashion, as well as most houses; soon, it was hoped that all houses carried this technology.
She didn’t have to think twice about the inscription. "I want it to say ‘You Are #1, You Beast’ on the inside."
He hesitated. "Is that all, ma’am? Are you sure that is what you want? If it is not above me to say so…" he began.
"It is," she interrupted.
"My deepest apologies, ma’am, I overstepped. ‘You Are #1, You Beast’ it will be. How very clever, how very nice and sentimental," he fawned, nodding vigorously.
She searched him for a hint of sarcasm, and found none. She maintained a stoic expression, displaying neither pleasure at his flattery nor disapproval of his conduct. "How long before it will be ready?"
"A few minutes, at the very most." The engraver showed up, and the manager passed off the watch to him, as well as a quiet verbal goading to make haste. The engraver went quickly back to his work station. "Can I get you anything while you wait? Some refreshments, perhaps? A glass of wine imported from It-uh-lee, back when it was recognized as separate from the United World Republic? Very hard to find these days."
"No. Thank you." Her voice, while not hostile, barred further conversation.
After what seemed like much longer than the few minutes it really was, the engraver brought her back a small parcel, nicely wrapped in gold paper. Apparently, the store’s paper-free wrapping policy did not extend to her. As if filling the overflowing landfills with plastic and synthetic materials was so much better. At least paper was biodegradable.
She held her hand over the scanner, waited for the beep that signified her chip had registered, and accepted the extended parcel. The receipt would be emailed to her long before she arrived home.
As she strode to the exit, the manager waddled behind her, babbling on about how it was always a joy doing business with her, thanking her for choosing his store for her World Peace Day shopping needs, and so on. She merely nodded.
"Oh, and please wish our great Leader a very, very happy World Peace Day, from myself and The Mart, and thank him for what he’s done for this great Union. Please give him these fine cigars as a gift from myself, with my compliments."
"Gladly, and thank you." She graced him with a plaster smile.
He unlocked the doors for her by pressing his hand to the scanner until it read his chip, and saluted her as she departed. Her security guards, who had been directed to wait outside, were instantly at her side, pushing a path through the rabble that crowded the storefront waiting for The Mart to reopen to the public so that they could do their last minute holiday shopping. The reactions to her presence varied greatly from one person to the next.
A group of the younger generation, their skin an indistinguishable shade of bronze, murmured amongst each other as they stared in wide-eyed, slack-jawed awe. She heard one of them (she could not tell if it was a male or a female, as the clothing was the same and nearly all wore short hair and makeup these days) say, "Wow, it’s really her. They say that she makes half the laws, and like, she’s really the Leader. Because of her, we’re united." They all impulsively grasped each other’s hands as they continued to watch her.
A middle-aged working man, not often seen these days when women dominated the workforce, frowned as she passed, but held his tongue. It was dangerous to say what he was thinking; he may be arrested for hate crimes or called a radical terrorist if he projected any disapproval or ill-will towards the Leaders of the United World Republic. Just the thought was bad enough; many of his friends had been incarcerated for thought crimes, which had been detected by the electronic brains that ran their households and passed on immediately to the local Peace Officers. He banished the thoughts and saluted.
Some of the older generation, those who vaguely remembered the Great War, stood stiffly and saluted her with respect, their hands held in the air at an angle, palms outward. Some of them may have been off-duty Peace Officers, or were Peace Officers in the past. They may have been too young to have served at the time of the Great War, but their patriotism was obvious.
One very old man, his white hair and pale skin stark in the crowd, his clothes the worn-out garb of a bygone era, shook his head in sadness. He had fought in the Great War. He remembered the biological warfare, the chemical warfare, the nukes, the mass genocide. The population reduction so that the remainder could be crowded into the great cities, pushing people from around the world into close proximity. He remembered stories his parents and grandparents had told him of what the world was like before the war, how things were much different. He had watched many of the changes happen himself, slowly, gradually, until people couldn’t remember any other way. He glared at her, in her revealing purple and scarlet designer clothing, her golden jewel-encrusted jewelry gleaming in the sun, the string of pearls around her neck bobbing as she walked.
"Whore!" he shouted, his voice hoarse. Anger ran though him. Anger at the state of things, anger at the Leaders, anger at himself for being silent too long.
"Shut up, old man," a nearby youth cautioned, but the disrespect of the youth compounded his anger. He cleared his throat, and started pushing his way through the crowd.
"Whore!" he shouted again, shaking his cane in the air. "Mother of Harlots! Abomination!"
"Stand down," the woman’s guards directed, pointing their weapons into the crowd. The people started to scatter, the scene quickly devolving into one of panic and chaos.
"Whore!" he repeatedly screamed.
"He has a bomb!" a guard shouted. Six shots rang out. The man crumpled to the ground, dead.
The head of security split his force, leaving two men to take care of the dead "terrorist" and give a press release while the rest escorted the woman to her vehicle. She hadn’t even broken stride.
World Headquarters, Babylon, New York
He maintained a stern face as he unwrapped his World Peace Day gift. To propagate the popularity of the holiday, a law had been written banning gift-giving to officials, including Peace Officers, on every holiday but one: World Peace Day, the day in December when the World Peace Treatise was signed into effect. Outside of World Peace Day, any gifts to officials were to be considered bribery and were punishable by law.
He opened the box, took out the watch, and looked it over closely. He snapped it open, and peered emotionlessly at the inscription. "Thank you," he said flatly, no true thanks being conveyed in the sentiment. He closed it and set it on the side table, where he proceeded to fiddle with it with his fingertips as his mind wandered to more pressing concerns.
His wife echoed his mandatory reply as she poured wine into the golden cup he had gifted her. Not wine from It-uh-lee, as the brainless store manager had pronounced it, but wine from the New World, wine from the great United World Republic. She silently toasted the U.W.R., then took a sip. She made a face. At first sweet and delicious, the taste was bitter at the end.
"Number 11876, by the way, wishes you a very, very happy World Peace Day, from himself and The Mart, and thanks you for what you’ve done for the Union. He said to give these cigars to you with his compliments."
"How is the situation with Number 19835, the terrorist?" he replied with a sneer. "Has that been properly dealt with?"
"Number 8952, the security guard who fired the first shot, has been publicly awarded a medal for his bravery in the face of danger." She paused, eyeing the watch as he toyed with it. "Did you see the inscription inside?" she asked.
"I did indeed. However, you and I both know what my true number is."
"Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six." - Revelation 13:18
[The beginning of] THE END.