Winston Smith was sitting in his chair, facing the telescreen, dutifully waiting for the four-o’clock Two Minutes Hate to begin, when he heard a knock on his door.
His guts suddenly felt full of ice water, his heart leaped against the confines of his ribcage as his testicles tried to crawl into his belly, for a happy moment he both welcomed the terror and eagerly awaited the endless black peace soon to follow.
Then he heard a second knock.
They never knock twice.
He got up, shuffled across the splintering floorboards of his flat, and opened the door.
The girl was barely out of her teens, he guessed, attractive in a soap-n-scrub sort of way, with grey-blue eyes, suntanned skin, and long blond hair gathered behind into a pony tail that poked out of the back of a yellow baseball-type cap. The cap matched her jumpsuit, which was strangely clean and crisply pressed. Equally strange, the red ribbon that would have identified her as a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League was missing from her slender waist. Instead, a broad leather belt loosely hugged her hips; tools and things Winston didn’t recognized hung from it.
“Good afternoon, sir. My name’s Julie, and I’m here to install your new Oceania Protective Systems A-4000 Series SuperViewer! May I please come in?”
Winston felt his jaw drop stupidly, shocked that a member of the Party would make a request rather than a demand - and that so politely! He stood aside without a word, and the young woman strode briskly into his shabby room.
He followed a moment later and found her standing before his telescreen, appraising it critically, rubbing her chin between thumb and curled index finger.
“Wow,” she said, “this is a real antique, an INGSOC Model 3, I’d guess, maybe a 2, early government issue. It was installed when you moved in?”
“Yes,” Winston replied. “Over twenty years now.”
“Twenty-one years, four months,” the young woman said, tapping at a small device she had quickly pulled out of a case strapped to her belt. “You were assigned this flat November 11th, 1982 by the Derbyshire Housing Council, you moved in November 14th, if we can believe the old records.” She made a tsk-tsk sound. “And you are Winston Smith, Number 6079, widower, no living relatives, semi-retired from Minitrue since 1984, partial disability.”
“You know all this, from that machine?” Winston asked.
“And more,” the girl replied. “Ah, I see you’re a Level Sixteen priority – that explains why you haven’t been upgraded before.”
“I’m a good comrade,” Winston said.
“Yes, well, if you’ll excuse me. This will take approximately fifteen minutes.”
Winston was happy to excuse her, especially as it allowed him to watch her work without the burden of maintaining his end of a conversation. He hadn’t had a woman in his flat in many years, and he welcomed the faint irritation of sexual desire her womanly figure aroused, like a querulous old friend almost forgotten.
The girl opened a thin but wide case she had carried in with her; it looked rather like an artist’s portfolio. She withdrew what appeared to be sheet of cardboard, about a half meter wide, perfectly square, smooth and blue-grey like her eyes, trimmed with a black plastic band. A small knob of glass was set in the middle of the bottom side; it glittered like a lizard’s eye.
The girl held the telescreen up for inspection. Seeing Winston’s curious look, she said, “It’s a beauty, isn’t it? Four point one megapixels resolution in the pickup, two point five on the liquid crystal display, spherical four-millimeter lens to eliminate all blind spots…” Her expert gaze went to a corner of the room where a table and chair were placed outside of the old telescreen’s field of view. “The photoreceptors are sensitive to infrared and can see you even when the lights go out, or when you’re sleeping. It will even read your body temperature and compare it with your bio-profile in the Central Database, for signs of fever or agitation.”
“I am often sick,” Winston said, “but never agitated.”
The girl smiled and ignored his comment. She turned and approached the old telescreen, the new one held before her, just as if she were preparing to hang a painting on the wall. The new telescreen was designed to fit over the old one and must have had some type of magnetic clamping mechanism. Winston heard four distinct clicks as the girl set the device. She took a step back and surveyed her work.
“That’s all it takes?” asked Winston.
“Jus’ about!” the girl responded. “The Series A-4000 connects to the old wiring through electrical induction, for both power and video feeds. Now its just a matter of synchronizing OPS’s software with the Party’s old mainframes.”
Winston was stunned. “What is this ‘OPS?’” he asked. “What ministry is it in?”
The girl had taken another device from her belt and was pointing it at the new telescreen. It looked like a pistol but shot only quick pulses of light from its barrel. She paused in her work to look quizzically at Winston.“What ministry? None, of course. OPS is a private company.” She touched the front of her cap where, Winston now noticed, there was silver stitching of the three letters. “We operate as an independent contractor,” she added proudly.
Winston’s head was beginning to swim. “Independent?” he stammered. “The Party allows private businesses?”
“Of course, sir. Since 1997, the year of the Great Accommodation.”
“‘Great Accommodation?’” Winston repeated, the words like unfamiliar food in his mouth.
“It started when someone at Minitrue, I think his name is Bartlett Roget, discovered that fully half of all the telescreens in operation at the time were non-functioning, and another fourth seriously degraded or compromised.”
“I never heard.”
“Not surprising,” the girl said. “Imagine if word had got out that so many people were unmonitored. Scary to even think about!” She shuddered and resumed shooting the new telescreen with her bullets of light. “So comrade Roget realized that certain functions of the government were just too crucial to be handled with such inefficiency, things like armament production, tax collection, and, especially, surveillance, and couldn’t be entrusted to --”
Suddenly the telescreen flashed on, displaying a bright, full-colour image of a young man wearing the same type of yellow jumpsuit and cap as Winston’s guest. He was handsome and slouched against a large gleaming console studded with countless toggles and buttons.
“Hi, Freddy! I’m at Unit 4B, Victory Mansions, Derbyshire, London. How are you receiving?”
“Hi yourself!” the young man responded. “You’re looking good, babe, like I could lick you right through the plexiglas!”
Julie giggled and winked at the telescreen. Winston had to sit down. This display of youthful lust was more unsettling than the news about private companies.
“Ready to synch with Minitrue?” Julie asked.
“Ready. Okay, now keep it clean, ‘Big Brother is Watching You!’” Freddy intoned the last five words in an deep, ominous voice, then laughed and said, “Data streaming set, synchronizing – now!”
The telescreen went blank for a few seconds, then it came back on, only now the screen area was divided in half. On one side the young man could be seen, still at his console but his manner now stiffly professional. The other side showed a non-descript middle-aged woman wearing a blue Party jumpsuit as wrinkled as her make-up deprived face.
“OPS, Higgins 4507 here,” the young man announced. “We have completed replacement of superannuated telescreen, residence of Smith, W, Number 6079, Victory Mansions. Are you optimized?”
The middle-aged woman looked into the camera watching her and replied in a bored voice, “Optimized, Higgins 4507. Main computers confirm installation. Minitrue credits forty-five hundred dollars to OPS’s account.”
The young man politely said thank you, but the woman merely reached out and flipped a switch, turning off her camera.
The image of the young man expanded into the empty space and once more took up the entire screen.
“You goin’ to Brighton for the weekend?” the young man asked Julie, on his lips a wolfish grin, his loose and casually carnal air reappearing.
“Maybe. This one makes my quota. Gonna be warm, you think?”
“Eighty degrees and clear, according to the weather satellite.”
The young man disappeared; his image replaced by a less handsome, not-so-young man repeating, in a voice straining to sound excited, the glorious achievements of the fifteenth Three-Year Plan.
“Well, that takes care of everything. Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Smith. OPS hopes you enjoy your new Series A-4000 SuperViewer!”
“Weather satellites…” murmured Winston.
The girl gathered her things. Winston got up and walked over to the new telescreen. The glass eye swiveled in its socket to follow him. The movement startled him, and he jumped back.The girl gave him a reassuring chuckle. “Amazing, isn’t it? The Series A-4000 has an Artificial Intelligence chip built in. It will follow your every move, learn your daily routines. Gross deviations from norms are downloaded to Central for logging into your file, until such time as they can be evaluated.”
“Evaluated? By who?”
The girl’s eyes narrowed in thought. “I’m not quite sure. There’s to be another wave of privatizations soon, of the most inefficient bureaus. Until then, the data will just accumulate, I guess. But don’t you worry; we have multiple backup systems, so the data is perfectly safe. Comforting, don’t you think?”
“Yes, very,” said Winston.
He followed her to the door. She shook his hand and strode off to the stairs, ignoring the elevator.
“Excuse me, miss!” Winston called out.
The girl stopped and looked back. “Yes, Mr. Smith?”
“Can you tell me, if you know…what is the most inefficient bureau in the Party?”
“Oh sure! Everybody knows that! The Ministry of Love is really bad, especially the Bureau of Executions. Why, their caseload’s backlogged for years!” She crinkled her cute little nose in disgust at the thought of such professional incompetence. “Rumor has it they will be outsourcing soon.”
“I’m sorry,” Winston said. “'Outsourcing?'”
“Subcontracting the work. Yeah, now that you mention it, I remember: SOMA Corporation is bidding on that one. Boy, they’re really good! They’ll be up to speed in no time!”
“That is comforting to know,” said Winston and waved good-bye.
His eyes followed her as she descended the stairs; he then returned to his room. He poured himself a tall glass of Victory Gin and settled into his chair to watch the new telescreen. A news bulletin was reporting Oceania’s latest great triumph over the brutal forces of Eurasia – or was it Eastasia? - on the always critical Malabar front. He drank the gin, choking only a little, and waited for the delicious warmth to spread from his stomach. He paused before taking a second sip and gave a grateful, silent toast to free enterprise.
It shouldn’t be long now.