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Sisters of Bilhah

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Rachel and Leah said to him, Do we still have any portion or inheritance in our father's house? Are we not reckoned by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and has also entirely consumed our purchase price.

-- Genesis 31:14-15

We want a society where people are free to make choices, to make mistakes, to be generous and compassionate. This is what we mean by a moral society; not a society where the state is responsible for everything, and no one is responsible for the state.

-- Margaret Thatcher, "The New Renaissance"

I know you've got a little life in you yet.

-- Kate Bush, "This Woman's Work"

Our office occupies what was once a child care centre. The atmosphere is one of peculiar, aggressive cheerfulness. Egg yolk coloured walls and durable but dubiously stained green carpet. In one room there are over-sized sticker decals in the shapes of extinct African safari animals: a zebra, an elephant, a giraffe and one shape that's nothing but a faded, peeled away silhouette. It could be a rhino or a lion or some other animal I've only seen in pictures. I wonder, sometimes, tracing the shape in my mind's eye when my attention wanders.

I give my head a slight shake and return my focus to the woman sitting across from me and paperwork and pen on the table between us.

"It's been years since I've had anything to write with," she says, cautiously nudging the pen as though she believes it might be hot to the touch.

I nod, keeping my face pleasantly blank, but I wonder to myself how fresh off the boat she must be. Can't be more than a few weeks. I can spot all the little clues: the residual fear of being caught reading and writing, the plain, unmade-up face, the hair. It's pulled away into a braid, but long enough that it trails halfway down her back.

"I can read you the questions and fill in your replies if you like," I say.

"No," she says, reaching to cradle the pen in her hands as though it's a bird with a broken wing. "No, I -- I remember how."

She prints each letter and number carefully, betraying exactly how much she is out of practice. Name of Client. Date of Birth. Racial Heritage. Name of Caseworker. I have already scribbled my own name, Lindy Wilson, in this box. Next, Five Year Residence History. She pauses there. "I don't know where I was, um, kept a lot of the time."

I fold my hands on the desk, very prim, but inside my head I am thinking: Queen's fucking arse, I always, always get the greenest of greenies. I should have known. Can't touch a pen, afraid to sit in a chair, not even a proper haircut yet. I'm lucky she didn't write her prisoner's patronymic for her name.

"What did they tell you about Britain," I say, letting the question unravel like an old wool jumper, "the people who helped you escape, the ones who told you to come here?"

"I don't know," she says. "That it would be safer than Canada. They had a way to get me as far as France, but I took Spanish in high school and I wasn't even very good at that."

Fucking bleeding queen's arse on a stick. "After the President's Day Massacre," I say, "the EU, by the time the government realized what was happening, it was too late. The EU had to agree to recognise that the Jacobian Directorate was the proper government, or there would have been a war.

"The commanders, you mean."

"Yes, right."

"There was a war," she says. "There's still a war, I mean. We saw it on TV."

"I don't mean the Gileadean Civil Wars," I say. "A world war. The Jacobian Directorate is allies with some very powerful, dangerous countries, and so," I let this sentence trail off, knowing she's not absorbing any of it anyway. "There's no diplomatic relations between the EU and Gilead, of course," I say. "But there is a non-aggression treaty, and it complicates the laws of asylum. One of the conditions of the treaty was that all member nations of the EU acknowledge that the Jacobian Directorate has made emigration from the Republic of Gilead a capital crime."

I can see from her face that my words are starting to make a horrible kind of sense. "You're going to send me back," she says. Her tone is flat but the way she holds her entire body has shifted in her seat. I can see in her bird-boned posture how she is now prepared to take flight if it proves necessary. Who knows how often this skill has saved her life over the last many months. It makes me feel like a princey shit, because I am being irritable with her right now, like it's her own fault she's a greenie. I take a deep breath.

"No," I say, "no, of course not. You're safe here. You're perfectly safe."

This is not strictly true. Even though it is probably keeping us all from being blown to bits, the terms of the treaty became wildly unpopular among the public once information started to leak about conditions under the Jacobian regimen. The police don't go around trying to arrest Gileadean refugees who have not been granted leave to stay, but if a woman ends up in custody for some other crime, the Border Agency has no choice but to go through the motions of complying with extradition.

There was a case like that last year. It was a bad one. An undocumented Gileadean refugee -- a woman in her late twenties who escaped from what used to be the American south -- had been working at a pub down in Norfolk. The owner tried to force himself on her, threatening to turn her in if she didn't go along. She slit his throat with the jagged neck of a broken beer bottle. When it happened, there were protests. People were outraged that she would be sent back to Gilead after everything she'd already endured.

It never came to that, though. She hung herself in her cell at the immigration detention centre. Worst possible outcome from all sides, really.

I do not tell the woman in front of me any of this. "American-born citizens who were outside what is now the Republic of Gilead during the coup can apply for asylum under the humanitarian non-repatriation exemption," I say. "Do you have any family living outside of Gilead, anyone who might be able to account for your whereabouts during the last five years?"

The HNRE, we call it, is a loophole so wide you could drive a lorry through it. Did you go to an American university and spend a gap year in Milan? Get your Italian ex-flatmate to write an affidavit stating you were visiting her family. The American university system and airline industry hardly exist to contradict you. There are other ways as well. The Save the Women movement has some powerful sympathisers. The director of our head office knows a woman who is mid-level senior management at Ikea and will swear that any woman who ever worked at any one of their American locations was at a non-existent new product expo in Stockholm on 18 April, 2025.

She is shaking her head, though. "There only time I even left the country before now was to go to Mexico for spring break," she says. "I knew just enough Spanish to order a margarita."

This is my last appointment of the day, so I set her up with an Oyster Card that's registered to the agency and explain its minimum-security travel limitations. "There's more information programmed in here," I say, holding out a cheap plastic compumobile. The case is bright red because we get them donated through a sponsorship with Virgin. "You just--"

"I know how to use a cell phone."

"Right. In the address book we've pre-programmed the locations of a number of homes that take women who don't have papers. Text me when you've gotten settled. We'll set up another appointment and we can start exploring your options then."

She slips the card and the phone into the pocket of her overcoat. "And what exactly are my options?" she says. The coat's much too large, and it swallows her up to the knees, the sleeves shoved into pools of nylon around her wrists. It has the logo of a Canadian hockey team over the left breast.

"One thing we can do is assist you with relocating to a non-EU country," I say. I think someone involved with the underground must work for the hockey team, because several of my clients have shown up wearing these over-sized rink coats. At least they look warm.

Her eyes get very wide. "I hear they've got lots of elbow room in China these days," she says.

I stand up, stepping away from the desk and toward the reception centre. "Let's concentrate on getting you settled tonight, then," I say.

After she leaves, I walk back to my cubby of a desk and gather my things. I check my compumobile and there's a text from Jack, my boyfriend. It reads: "MEETING 2MORROW INSTEAD WHATS 4 SUPPER?" Thinking Jack was going to be at a party meeting tonight, I was planning a supper of biscuits and a glass of wine, but now I'll have to stop for something on the way home.

I am thinking about shawarma as I leave the office. My appointment ran late and the place is nearly empty. I wave goodnight to the new legal assistant as I shrug my way into my overcoat. "Good night, Lindy!" she says. I don't remember her name. I'm terrible at names.

*

I actually went to university to study social work with the notion that I would go abroad and work with AIDS orphans in China. The communist government fell apart when I was in secondary school, and even what I was able to soak up in Year 9 made a lasting impression. After a decade of totalitarian censorship, the whole world was watching grainy footage of mass graves dug in city hospital basements, farmers lying down to die in their spinach fields while their children shrieked and cried behind them. The effects of the Cooperative Reproductive Policy made the AIDS pandemic in Africa from decades earlier look like a primary school nurse's station.

I took a course in Chinese History when I was at university, and I did an essay comparing the factors that contributed to the Great Famine during the Maoist Cultural Revolution and the AIDS pandemic during the implementation of the Cooperative Reproductive Policy. I wrote about peasants who'd starved to death because they'd been forced to abandon agriculture for steel production and their doomed descendants, who'd died when every woman in the village under the age of 40 was forcibly sterilised with the same dirty medical equipment. In the cities, citizens couldn't escape the loudspeakers of the Central People's Broadcasting Station but received little to no sex education, and so they produced a generation of women who believed that the only possible consequence of their promiscuity had been taken from them by force.

My professor gave me top marks and a recommendation for a gap year program in Myanmar working with Chinese refugees. But by then I'd met Jack, and he told me that if I went to Myanmar, he'd be so mad with worry that he'd never sleep. So we got a flat together in Islington and I took a job as a caseworker at a charity organisation for Gileadean refugees.

My first day at the job, I wore a black skirt, a white blouse and a red jumper with pearl buttons. "Do I look like a shop girl?" I asked Jack.

"A sexy shop girl, maybe," Jack said. We'd just moved into the new flat and he was watching me from our mattress on the floor. "C'mere," he said, coaxing me away from the box where I thought I'd seen my good black heels. "A very sexy shop girl," he said, sliding a cold hand up my skirt. I squirmed away because he was palming the chubby part of my thigh and I hated that.

When I got to the office, the woman who'd hired me took my retinal scan, my identibadge print and the residency papers I would need for my tube permit. "There's just one more thing, then," she said, looking at me over the glasses that were pearched on the ski slope of her nose. She was older, and had told me during the interview that she'd spent twenty years working in adoption placement. There weren't many jobs in government-arranged adoption anymore, though. It was the unspoken logical consequence of scarcity of resources in a free market economy. "Would you take off the jumper, please?" she said.

"Sorry?"

"It's my mistake," she said with a tight frown. "I ought to have mentioned it during the interview. We ask the staff not to wear anything that shade. It upsets the clients. I'm sure you understand."

"Right," I said, feeling completely daft. "Of course." And that was my first day at Sisters of Bilhah.

*

Tuesday it rains and I am late getting to the office and I am almost arrested.

What happens is that I am rushing for the platform at Archway, my feet squishing in the wet puddles at the bottom of my shoes and I queue through the body scanner because I know my card is somewhere in the pocket of my overcoat. Except that when I step through, the alarm sets off and two security guards in yellow and black uniforms step out of nowhere to detain me. At first I am not frightened but embarrassed, as though I've been caught trying to pinch a lipstick. The other passengers flow past me as though I am a rock in a stream. They do not look at me. It's better not to seem interested, and they all have their own trains to catch, anyway.

"Miss," says the one on my right, all polite like he doesn't have a bone-crushing grip on my wrist. "Miss, I am required to inform you that an unauthorised attempt to access the Underground during regulated hours is a criminal offense under the Terrorism Act of 2025."

"Yes, yes, I know," I say as they are steering me toward the detention pen. "My card's right in my coat pocket, it's a Northern oh-eight-hundred unrestricted, I'll show if you'll just let me--"

The one on my left twists my arm in a sharp, nasty way. I look up at him, but I can't see his eyes because his visor is down. "Regulations are that you must be secured for search," he says. He jerks me toward the pen. Startled, I stumble, held up by the guards like a rag doll. I place my feet in the shoe print marks on the detention square. I've stood here before a handful of times, during random bag search, somehow always in the morning when I am already late. But the square is not electrified to prevent escape during the random bag searches, and I'm rather sure it is now.

"Arms out, miss," says the one who has been on my right. He is now standing in front of me with a security wand. He sweeps the wand across my front and down my sides. I think that if Jack was here, he would say, "Sorry, fellows, I left my sodium nitrate in the pocket of my other trousers." I do not say that, though, because having a laugh at tube security guards is a good way to get a bolt of current from the security wand square in your chest.

"Card in your coat pocket, you said?" asks the other one. I nod. He reaches for the empty pocket first but I don't say anything. It's foolish but I almost smirk when he pulls out my Oyster Card. The guard says nothing, scanning the card with his wand. I wait for it to produce a holo with my name, photo and more vital statistics than I really care to consider.

The holo produces a familiar face, but not my own. "It's Jack, It's Jack's card," I say. "My boyfriend, we must have accidentally swapped cards, see--"

The more friendly guard is thumbing through floating holoscreens of Jack's personal information. "Positive identification on registered cohabitant," he says, and there is my own name and photo, nestled in Jack's file between his regrettably spotty employment history and a list of known health conditions.

Jack and I were in our last year at university in Manchester when the King's Cross bombing happened. I'd learned about the 7/7 terrorist attacks in school, and before them the IRA and before that, the Blitz. But none of that was my own personal history, just things I'd read about in books. Jack came over to my flat and we watched the footage on my cheap, pixelated tellyscreen, the crater where the station had been, the earth cut open like a gaping wound.

When the American president was assassinated a week later, the shock felt hollow, a tragedy happening in an empty room down the hall. King's Cross had already been linked to Iranian extremists, and what was happening in America was madness, but elsewhere. No one realized until much later that this was by design. When we moved to Islington, the new security measures were already in place.

From Jack's record, the guards are able to skip into my own transit file, verify that I am a employee of the Sisters of Bilhah registered charitable organisation and that I am entitled to a card with authorised travel on the Northern tube line between the peak security times of 0800 to 1000 and 1700 to 1900 hours. Technically, by attempting to enter the tube during restricted hours without proper authorisation, I have still committed a crime. The nice one says they'll let me go with a warning.

*

I feel guilty about turning up late so I volunteer to take a walk-in client. It's a young woman, hunched up in a hooded jumper, who looks like she's been living rough for a couple months.

"Hello," I say, "I'm Miss Lindy, and I work with women who--"

She cuts me off mid-sentence, shaking her head. "Just need someone to sign this form," she says, pulling a crumpled piece of paper from inside her jumper. "Man at the ward council said I get a case worker to sign this form, I get on the list for people who need somewhere to live."

She passes me the paper, and I can see it's the standard application for priority social housing. There's a NASS-35 number stamped next to her priority listing, which means that she's already been granted asylum.

"You've already received a positive decision," I say, confused.

"Yup," she says. "Still need a place to live, though."

Her NASS-35 is a Gateway Protection Programme number. This means she was granted expedited asylum status because she came from a refugee camp. This makes no sense as her accent is clearly American. "They'll catch you if you're using someone else's NASS-35," I say. "It's tied to a retinal scan."

At this, she snorts. Her hair peeks out from her hood in dredlocks, and her barely stifled laughter makes a few of them wave in front of her face like ferns. "Oh, don't worry, it's mine," she says. "Went right down to Refugee Council, sat next to a big family from Zambia and kept my mouth shut. I know you think we all look alike, figured I might as well use it to my advantage. Just came here this time because I heard you spend less time in the waiting room."

I duck my head because the truth in her words has made my cheeks color with embarrassment. Even now, Refugee Council is overwhelmed with priority applicants fleeing Africa's Vaccine Wars. There's one part of her story that doesn't make sense, though. "They should have been able to tell when you got your medical," I say. "Whenever you got the vaccine in the States, it would have made antibodies that would show up in your blood."

"Yeah, right," she says. "You know where I grew up? Baltimore. Would have had a better chance of getting vaccinated if I was actually Zambian." She's not entirely wrong. One thing I have learned from working with refugee clients: once you've managed to escape, it's rather in your favor if your home country has the kind of government that doesn't care if you're living or dead.

I got the AIDS vaccine when I was thirteen. I remember it happened at school even though we didn't have classes that day. The prime minister had declared Vaccine Day a national holiday. There was video on the news of crying nursery school children who had just gotten their shots, adults lined up around the block at health clinics, a country nurse giving a dairy farmer his vaccination right at his kitchen table.

I knew it hadn't been like that everywhere. Throughout Africa, where the vaccine would have done the most good, corrupt governments hoarded their supplies of medicine, which led, of course, to the Vaccine Wars. I never imagined anything like that in America, though. I know about the horrors of the Gileadean regimen. But when I was thirteen, America was just a big loud idea of a place, full of shiny new cars and action movie heroes.

I sign the form.

*

I am completely knackered and I just want to go home, but Jack wants me to meet him at a pub near my office for drinks with one of his party friends. And anyway, I have to trade back Oyster Cards with him so I don't get detained again, so I text him to say I'm heading over.

My friends all ask how Jack and I stay together, what with him being Party of England and me working with illegal refugees. It's complicated.

People think Party of England is all ex-Conservatives, or they confuse them with the BNP. Jack says the first organisers were originally ex-Green Party and fed up with its failure to radicalise the anti-war movement. "It's really about holistic isolationism," Jack always says. "We're pro-environment, we're anti-war, we advocate for petrol independence. It's not that we're anti-immigrant, it's just that we recognise that the country doesn't have enough sustainable resources to support them. You've seen how those women live, Lindy, tell me I'm not wrong."

Jack does that a lot, asks questions that only have yes or yes answers.

"Darling!" he says when I walk into the pub. He's sitting at a booth with another bloke I haven't met before. "Oliver, this is Lindy, Lindy this is Oliver," Jack says as he tugs me into the booth next to him, slipping an arm around my waist under my overcoat.

"All right," Oliver says, raising his pint in my direction.

"So, you know each other from the party, then?" I ask.

Oliver nods. "We were down protesting at Parliament all day," he says. I glance over at Jack, because I thought he had an interview for a copywriter position today, but Jack is looking studiously at his beer. "They're debating a resolution on sending troops to Toronto because of the border skirmishes. It's just a princey way to backdoor into war with Gilead." He's crumpling paper napkins into compact balls as he talks, and it makes him look like a kid stocking up for a snowball fight. "The whole thing is as bad an idea as wearing the king's arse as a hat," he says, chuckling at his own joke.

"Lindy works at Sisters of Bilhah," Jack says. "She knows what it's like over in Gilead. They keep all the women locked up in their military compounds, there'd be no way to fight an air war without thousands of civilian casualties. Look at the Vaccine Wars -- the UN tried to get involved and within a year there were twice as many combat deaths as there were African people dying of AIDS."

"You really work with the ex-handmaidens?" Oliver says to me.

"Not all Gileadean refugees are handmaidens," I say, feeling like a wind-up doll being made to read from the organisation's website. "The regimen persecutes minorities, anyone who doesn't convert to the state religion, gays and lesbians--"

"Oy," Oliver says, waggling his eyebrows. "It's just like in the film, then?"

If I had ten pence for every time someone asks me if my job is just like the film, I would be able to buy a round for everyone in the pub. The film is called The Secret Diaries of a Handmaiden. I never saw it, but based on the adverts, here's what happens: a young Gileadean woman is forced to become a handmaiden. The actress who plays the handmaiden used to be quite famous for starring on a children's programme before she nearly overdosed on cocaine when she was thirteen. The handmaiden character is sent to live in a compound with an evil Jacobian commander and his wife. The wife is a secret lesbian and starts up an affair with the handmaiden behind the husband's back. There is apparently a very popular but implausible-sounding sex scene in a bathtub. The wife trades military secrets gleaned from her husband with the Mayday underground so she and the handmaiden can be smuggled across the border into Mexico.

"It's not quite like the film," I say.

I don't know if the film has a happy ending. Based on my experience, a realistic ending would be two white women alone in Mexico getting sold into the kind of sex slavery that would make Gilead look like a country club.

"--and, at any rate," Jack says, later, after several more pints and a flush in his cheeks has him looking like he's rummaged through my make-up case, "there's the question no one ever asks. What would we be fighting for over there? Gilead is nasty business, don't get me wrong. But the United States of America was not exactly the pinnacle of western civilisation. It's like what happened in China. Millions of people died during the AIDS pandemic, but it also brought down a government that'd been committing human rights atrocities for more than fifty years. People in Gilead are suffering, but weren't they already suffering when they had a government that dragged them into the Twenty Years War in the Middle East? Is it really that much difference?"

"At least," Oliver says, making sloshy emphasis with his glass, "Gilead got rid of all those terrible American sports."

*

I am eating biscuits at my desk, looking on my holoscreen at what might be photographs of Queen Theodora snogging her Spanish tennis instructor and hoping my ten o'clock appointment won't show. This is, of course, when my screen flashes a message to let me know she's arrived. She's twenty minutes late.

"Hullo," I say when I've gathered up her file and entered the reception centre. I've seen this one a couple times before. She is eight months pregnant and her body announces itself belly first when she walks into a room, like a watermelon stuck under her jumper. She is painfully skinny everywhere else, and she regards her watermelon belly like she's the only one who knows the fruit is secretly rotten. She gives me the same sort of look when she sees me, except for the part about it being a secret.

"So we're here to do your Family Leave Bonus paperwork, then?" I say once I have us settled down. She sighs, which I take as an affirmative response. I take an uncharitable moment to think of Jack's mum, who said, "That must be such rewarding work, the women must be so grateful," after I told her about my job when we saw his family at Easter. It's hard to explain to someone who isn't familiar with the work that the polite and grateful girls are the ones who keep their heads under their veils, not the ones who scheme to escape.

Being pregnant, she has already received leave to remain despite being a Gileadean expat. The Family Protection and Placement Programme is basically the only part of the non-aggression treaty where the EU told Gilead to go bugger themselves, because you don't have to be a Jacobian theocrate to read a population growth chart. We start on the paperwork. To qualify for the Bonus, a woman needs proof that she is faithfully accessing antenatal care, so I have to dig through her file to find her medical. I ask questions, she gives short answers. It's all going fine. Then I say, "There's, ah, there's a question here -- we need to write down the name of the father. Obviously the other personal information isn't possible, but--" I am stuck in the mess of my own words like they're made of taffy.

"I don't know who the father is," she says, seemingly obviously to my awkwardness.

"Your commander--"

"I wasn't in one of the compounds," she says then. "It was a military base, somewhere on the front lines. It might have been Ohio or West Virginia, I'm not really sure. Things were different out there. We still did the Ceremony every month, but otherwise I never saw him. There were Guardians, though, and if they had the chance, they'd, you know, make you." She is telling the story like it was a particularly boring holiday her family took when she was young. "So it could have been the Commander, or it could have been one of them, I don't know," she finishes.

This is more than she has said in all three times we have met before, combined. "I'm so sorry," I say.

She shrugs. "There was one, he never tried anything. I think he was probably gay, but they have to hide that stuff or they'll be executed for gender treason. He was the one who got me onto the munitions truck to Lake Erie. Probably got himself killed, which was dumb, but I wouldn't have gotten out without his help."

"What you went through," I say, "there are support groups."

She rolls her eyes. "Right," she says. "Ugh, I can't even imagine. It'd probably be just like the Red Center." She looks at me then, and her expression is peculiar, as though she almost feels sorry for me. "Let's just finish the paperwork," she says. "Uh, please. Let's finish the paperwork, please."

*

My mum rings me up in the afternoon and says, "I thought maybe you and Jack would like to come around for supper tomorrow." Jack is always included in her invitations, but it is understood that their barely stifled animosity toward each other is something that is only to endured on birthdays, holidays and other special occasions. My mum lives alone in a flat in Essex, though, and if I were a better daughter I would visit her more often than I do.

I wedge my compumobile between my ear and my shoulder so I can thumb through files on my holoscreen while we talk. "I think Jack has a party meeting tomorrow night," I say, "and I might have to work late."

"They work you too hard there, Lindy," she says, "I keep telling you that." What goes unspoken is implication that I should not be working so hard because I should not be working at all. I am, after all, nearly 30, and if I don't have children soon I will miss out on my Family Leave Bonus. This would allow me to stay home for two years at my current rate of salary with an additional allowance each month for nappies and formula and whatever other things babies need. This is why I do not go around for supper if I can possibly avoid it.

It's mad awkward when my mum brings up the subject of children because I still haven't told her I got the ronnie my first year at university. This has been the subject of much agonising with Devaki, my best friend from uni. She always says, "I really don't understand what you're on about. If she raises a fuss, just tell her you caught it from the King."

The tabloid sites started posting rumors that King William had the ronnie when I was in Year 8, but it wasn't until I was in lower sixth form that the Daily Mirror paid the King's personal physician five million pounds for a tell-all and William was forced to go on the television and admit it was actually true. He didn't say "the ronnie," of course, he said, "the recently discovered form of R-strain syphilis that has been proven to cause sterility." And even though the House of Windsor family tree is probably full of the cuckold bastard children of wandering bards and stable boys, the whole world knows, so Queen Theodora can hardly just turn up pregnant.

They haven't gotten divorced like the King's mother and father, but tabloid sites also make no secret that the Queen lives in Majorca most of the year. Theoretically the line of succession will fall to Prince Harry, if he has not yet managed to die of alcohol poisoning. As a result, the whole mess has led to a fad of republicanism. I know a bit about this because Jack and his political friends are all very serious republicans. Mostly what I have picked up from it is their fondness for using complicated and filthy monarchist curses.

Which is to say: I will get crown-stuffed before I tell my mum she's probably not going to have any grandchildren.

Jack knows, obviously. He was good about it when I told him. He said, "Well, I suppose that means we don't have to use rubbers, then?" Jack doesn't want kids because he believes zero population growth is necessary for at least another twenty years in order to salvage a sustainable world ecology.

*

"So, what type of assistance are you looking for?" I ask the client sitting across from me. She's never been here for services, but she's not a greenie either. She sits smoothly in the chair and her chestnut brown hair is cut in a blunt line at her chin.

"I don't know, exactly," she says.

"We can help you resolve your immigration status," I say. "Depending on your circumstances, you may be eligible for social housing, vocational education, that type of thing. There are support groups." Her stomach seems flat under her bulky wool jumper, but I add, "We can also provide referrals to antenatal care, if that's a concern."

She twists her hands in her lap. "No, no," she says. "I was pregnant when I got out, but we had a bad landing at the rendezvous in Iceland and I lost the baby."

"I'm so sorry," I murmur. Some of the ex-handmaids count a miscarriage as a blessing, but she is clearly not one of them.

She bites her lip. "I have a daughter," she says. "She's eight now. They took her when she was four. I thought, there must be some way to get a message to her. I guess that's what type of assistance I'm looking for."

"I'm sorry," I say again, feeling princey for repeating myself. "The work we do -- we're able to provide services to undocumented refugees because we don't have any ties to the underground movements." Her face falls. "There are other groups who do more vocal anti-Gilead advocacy," I add lamely.

She shakes her head. "I don't want to be in a Save the Women documentary," she says. "I've heard what happens. It's not just my daughter, there are -- other people. Who were close to me. He -- they could get hurt."

"I understand," I say. One of my very first clients got mixed up with the Save the Women radicals and got her imprisoned husband's severed hand with wedding band mailed to her in a coffee container for her troubles.

"Before," she says, "I thought, if I ever managed to escape, that it would be different. That I would feel different, that I'd feel like myself again. But it's still the same inside. They took everything from me, and no matter what I do, I'm still empty inside."

*

Gilead and Japan have an uneasy alliance, which has teetered like a three-legged table since the first days after the coup.

Japan wanted cover while it invaded Taiwan, something to do with settling a score from a mouldy old war with China a hundred years ago. Their victory must have been somewhat underwhelming. When the Japanese arrived at Taipei, they found an island occupied by a handful of sick and dying technocrats who didn't care what army patrolled the streets if it meant they occasionally handed out food and medicine.

Gilead had just committed nuclear power plant sabotage in Missouri and Iowa and a catastrophic chemical spill on the lake shore of Chicago, which served the duel purpose of providing additional distraction in the weeks leading up to the coup and also creating a thousand square mile prison for anyone who wasn't happy with the new regime. The midwestern toxic waste dump was a great place to send minorities, dissidents, the post-menopausal and otherwise infertile women. However, it created somewhat of a manufacturing infrastructure problem. Japanese Taipei provided the solution.

I saw a news segment about it on the BBC last year. Japanese women in a Taipei factory, lined up at their sewing machines like hens in a chicken coop, stitching the high collars and bell sleeves of the handmaid dresses, rows and rows of them like prison uniforms for a choir of blood-soaked angels. The reporter asked one of the women, through a translator, how it felt to make garments for Gilead's handmaidens. The woman at the factory, she sat behind her sewing machine, a sea of red fabric between her hands. "I am only doing my job," she said.

I think about her as I watch the client leave: I am only doing my job. So why do I feel like I have just run her through a sewing machine?

*

On Thursday I have lunch with Devaki. When we lived together at Manchester, we would make marmalade sandwiches at three in the morning and eat them sitting on the floor by the radiator because of the cold. Now we have to text each other by compumobile two weeks in advance. We are, I suppose, adults. We go to a vegetarian place Devaki likes. I'm not veggie, but with the meat shortages getting worse every year, I am learning to like it. Jack hates it, he always makes a face when I bring home a curry with tofu because the take-away place has run out of anything else.

She's waiting for me inside the restaurant. We sit right down to order because I only have an hour away from the office. Devaki is a writer, so she makes her own hours. I order apple-celery soup and she asks for a beet and spinach salad. "Why the fuck not," she says. "I just sold a piece." Spinach is a delicacy these days, and will be until China's agricultural industry fully recovers. "Anyway," she adds, "I'm thinking about becoming a surrogate."

"Oh, no, Dev, no," I say. I bite my lip. "Why would you want to do that?"

"Well, the money, for one," she says, counting off this reason with a pointed finger. "It's not like it'd be my own baby. The brokers buy frozen eggs on the black market. As long as the baby is white bread, they don't care if it gets cooked in a brown oven."

I shake my head, because Devaki is always saying outrageous things like that.

"It's a lot of money," she says. "You get the Bonus while you're carrying the foetus and then the payment from the brokers after it's born. Guaranteed, even if the baby's a shredder."

"But it's not like shortletting your flat for a couple months," I say. "I mean, it's your body." The waitress brings us our meals. My soup has a dollop of yoghurt floating on the surface and I stir it slowly, watching it dissolve into the pale green underneath.

"Hey," she says, "it's not like with those girls you work with. This would be my choice. I could work on my book and collect the Bonus instead of hustling for freelance jobs to pay the rent. The way I see it, I'm really taking control of my body by making some pair of barren old fools pay a fair price for it."

I think Devaki is beautiful. My skin was a blotchy red mess when we were at uni and hers was always perfect and unblemished. I want her to meet a man, be happy and have her own children. If I said this, she would laugh and say, "Oh, Lindy," like we are still 19 and I am asking her if my skirt is too short to wear on a date. So I change the subject, and ask her to tell me about the piece she just sold.

*

I am being chased by an enormous egg. The egg has hands and feet and arms and legs like something out of a horror film nursery rhyme. I trip, and egg catches up with me, wrapping its arms around me from behind and pressing me against its cold, hard shell. I shout and try to fight, but I can't break free. The louder I scream, the more it's drowned out by a metallic buzzing sound, and--

I wake up and realise that the sound was my compumobile buzzing on the table at the side of the bed.

"Fuck me," Jack says, grumbling beneath the blankets as sit up to answer. "It's the middle of the bleeding night."

"Sorry," I say, putting a hand on his shoulder. I shift to get out of the bed and the floor is a block of ice on my bare feet. "Go back to sleep," I tell him. "I have to go. One of my clients had her baby."

*

The room is small but there's a window, and a tellyscreen on the wall facing the bed.

"I didn't realise they'd call you," she says, like an apology, and then, "It's a girl."

I nod. "Healthy, then?"

"Yeah. Not a shredder." The tellyscreen switches from an advert for a surrogacy broker to a press conference with the Prime Minister.

"That's good," I say. The Prime Minister is announcing that Parliament has authorized humanitarian aid in Toronto but no troops. Although there is no definitive proof that Iran is providing weapons to the Gileadean army in Buffalo, there will be continued sanctions. Which is practically laughable, as though the UK has anything Iran could possibly want.

"You know what's really funny?" she asks me suddenly. She shifts her bundle from one arm to another like the baby is a particularly cumbersome sack of groceries.

"Sorry?" I say. I turn my back fully on the tellyscreen, the Prime Minister's red tie and his shiny duck's wing hair. Anyway, he's being asked about the ridiculous rumor that there's new proof Gileadean scientists caused the Mount San Antonio earthquake in 2024.

"I always hated kids," she says. "Even when I was teaching Sunday school, I hated their runny noses and their sticky little hands."

"If you don't want to keep the child, the agency would be able to help you put her up for placement. Only the most respectable families would be considered and it wouldn't affect your immigration status."

"No!" she says. She gathers the bundle in both arms against her chest. "Nobody's getting their hands on my baby."

I put my hands up, palms out in a show of surrender. "Of course not, I--"

"I mean, I know it sounds crazy," she says, relaxing by centimetres. "I hate kids, her father's probably some soldier who raped me in a coat closet. But I just feel like -- I feel like, if I don't keep the baby, they win. Is that completely crazy?"

I slide into the chair by the bed. "It's not crazy," I say. "You're not mad at all." I put one hand on the hospital blanket. The baby is tiny, with flush watermelon pink skin. I ask her, "Have you decided on a name?"