A collection of short stories by F. D. Lee, including science fiction, romance and horror.
MY NEW CAREER
“They used to say Hell is other people. Bet you didn’t know that.”
I actually hear the sharp intake of breath I take at the sound of his voice. I swear to God, I feel my nostrils flare.
“Now it’s supposed to be Heaven,” he adds, spitting at the floor in some attempt to show me how much he hates the world, as if I didn’t already know.
I ignore him, concentrating on the entrance to Viatogney, across the plaza.
“You’re like the rest of them. Don’t know nothing about life before the Awakening,” Eddie continues. “Years of my life, my whole life, studying it. I should have someone who knows what they’re doing.”
“Right. My ‘new’ career. I trained for this too, harder’n you,” I add, glancing at his heavy gut. “If you’re so smart, you know why we can’t have field experience.”
That shuts him up. But I can still feel his petulance in the corner of my mind. And I know he can feel my irritation every time he whines and complains.
“The building’s emptying,” I say, watching the plaza fill up with people. Which you’d know if you’d just shut up for a minute and pay attention. “We’re up. You ready?”
“I’m ready. If anyone’s gonna fuck this up, it won’t be me.”
Eddie grabs his suit jacket. It’s cheap, the best Control could provide to help us blend in when we pass through the plaza, but the sleeves are too small for his thick arms. I try to hide my amused disgust as I watch him struggle into it. Pointless, of course. He knows what I’m feeling as surely as I receive his anger and humiliation.
We are Awake, Eddie and I, trapped by our proximity to each other. But not for much longer, thank God.
We make our way across the plaza, through the crowd of evacuated employees, towards Viatogney. This part’s risky, and why both Eddie and I need to be newbies. We’ve been trained to keep our emotions masked, but the chances of someone picking up on experience is high. So it’s better to have none—that’s what Control said.
Control have done their work. The Viatogney staff are anxious, alarmed, nervous, bored, angry… horny… Nice… They’re not paying attention to us as we slip through them.
And then Eddie opens his Goddamn mouth.
“You won’t know this because you’re dumb, but before the Awakening there was this civilisation of warriors, they transformed warfare. They made it bloody. Took no prisoners, killed anyone they didn’t have a use for. Before them, war was just a scrap in the fields and all home for supper.”
Shut up, shut up, shut up!
I send all my emotion at him, hard as I can. What the Hell is wrong with him? A couple of nearby Viatogney employees turn to look at us. It could be because they felt my wave of fury rolling out, but I know it isn’t.
“They took over the whole region, back then. What they didn’t know, though, was that they were showing others how to fight as well. Refugees from one area went on to conquer another, blood and death everywhere. Idiots,” Eddie prattles on, oblivious to the attention he’s drawing. “That’s like the Awakening. We ain’t supposed to know everything everyone else knows.”
I grab him by the arm, ignoring the revulsion touching him elicits, and spin him round to face me. “Shut up,” I hiss, trying to look nonchalant as I manhandle this slob, five times my size. “What the Hell is wrong with you? You’re gonna get us killed. Just… shut up for five minutes. Can you manage that?”
Eddie opens his mouth, and I tighten my grip. He might be bigger than me, but I’m stronger. He glares at me, but his mouth slams shut.
A few people are watching us now. I send out embarrassment, which isn’t difficult to conjure up, and sprinkle it with a bit of tiredness and – and here’s part of the reason I was saddled with Eddie – even love. I love this fat, disgusting slob. He’s old. Mad. But I love him. Family, huh?
I get back sympathy, a bit of respect. Poor girl, good girl, the old ones never quite adjusted, good for you. I smile at the nearest Viatogney employees, grateful. They smile back, turn away. Go back to their own problems.
Empathy. That’s what the Awakening promised. With empathy, there’d be no more war, no crime, no cruelty. And, oh yeah, the Awakening delivered. But it didn’t just take away the bad. It took away the good, too. The arts went first. Hard to enjoy a painting or a piece of music when you know what everyone around you feels about it. Then friends. Lovers. Family. You don’t realise how important private feelings are until you don’t have them anymore.
I was Awoken as a baby, but sometimes I think I can imagine what it’s like to be alone. Especially after being stuck for days with Eddie.
He manages to keep his mouth shut the remainder of the way, a small miracle he, of course, knows I’m grateful for. We get inside easily. Everyone’s distracted by the terror warning, and Control has done their job well, the swipe card getting us up ten flights before we hit trouble.
The security turns up from nowhere—I mean, literally nowhere. I didn’t feel them approach, not one of them. Eddie was droning on about his war mongers, right up to the moment we turn the corner and find ourselves facing a firing squad.
Five soldiers, five blasters, five helmets.
“Shit,” Eddie says, for once taciturn. Too late, Eddie.
I step in front of him, eyeing the guards. Helmets. Is that why I couldn’t feel them? “We’re lost,” I offer, focusing on my confusion and fear, trying to sell the story. “We need to get out. We heard the alarms. I’m visiting my uncle… he’s confused…”
The five shiny black helmets remain fixed; the five blasters aiming straight at us. I can’t feel anything from them. I have no idea what they’re going to do.
“This is what it was like, before the Awakening,” Eddie says behind me. “Silence… silence… I can be myself…”
And then Eddie bursts into tears. Heaving, messy, disgusting sobbing. He reaches forward, grabs my shoulder, a terrible, guttural wailing emerging from his filthy chest and spewing out his cracked lips to spill over us.
The helmets recoil in perfect unison, taken aback by the sudden, visible emotion. Alien to them as it is to me.
I seize the moment, perhaps because I’m so sick to death of Eddie that nothing he does can throw me anymore. I kick backwards, my foot hitting Eddie slap in the centre of his gut, propelling myself forwards in a spin. I catch the first guard with my booted heel, cracking his head into number two. Duck, spin, punch up and they’re on the floor, dead or unconscious I can’t tell because I can’t feel them.
The remaining three turn together, their movements mirrored in each other. Some part of me realises this, and I take advantage. They aim together, and I feint left. The blast hits the ground where they thought I would be, but by now I’m up on their right, roundhouse into the nearest one’s helmet, a sucker punch to the stomach, knee in the groin and now there’s two.
I hear a couple of blasts, but I’m not paying attention. I’m somewhere else, blissfully removed from Eddie’s screaming cries and the danger we’re in, my body and my mind lost to the fight. I feel leather and metal as my fists make contact, and the sweet, sharp pain up my arms and legs as I kick and spin and jump.
It’s over. I’m back in my mind, my chest heaving, my body aching. The five guards lay crumpled around me. I feel a surge of triumph and turn to Eddie, delighted that he can feel it too.
“See that, you smug bastard? That’s why I’m here—”
Eddie is down, blood pooling around him, a gruesome sunset against the white stone floor.
“Shit, shit, shit,” I babble, pulling him to his feet.
“I knew… knew you’d fuck… it up…” His voice is thick and heavy.
For a moment I don’t understand, but then I get it. I grab a blaster, stick it in my waistband, and then half carry, half drag Eddie to the elevator. I don’t know how, but I manage to wave the security card against the panel and we begin to climb. Using the elevator is dangerous. Eddie bleeds out, yet somehow still manages to tell me how useless I am, while I image the signals being sent to central security. Who’s in the building? What’s happening? Send more guards…
We make it to the top floor, but not before the alarms start to sound.
I drag Eddie along, sweat stinging my eyes. I can feel his pain. His confusion. His fear. Thank God, evidently, his chip is still functioning. I push his emotions aside, as best I can. Focus on my feet, one step and then another. Forward, forward.
My vision falters, blurry and black for a moment. I blink, look at Eddie. He’s losing consciousness. I hit him, hard, and he comes back, bringing his filthy feelings with him.
“Bitch,” he says, blood bubbling around the word.
But we’re here, in the control centre. I drop Eddie into the nearest chair, dash to the console, and enter the various codes I have memorized. Nothing happens. I glance at Eddie, relieved to see he’s still awake. And then the lights go green. I grab the nearest Nest, hauling the wires over my shoulder, back to Eddie.
“My chip… You need to take my chip…”
I open my mouth to refuse, but he’s right. He’s as good as dead, and the chip’ll die with him.
“How long will I have?”
“Make sure… you… get it…” he coughs blood, his eyes glazed. “…the right... way… up…”
I blast him in the temple, plunge my hand into his skull, his brain soft and wet and disgustingly warm. He body jumps and shudders, but I find his chip, pull it free, and he goes still. I launch myself at the Nest, plug his chip in, execute the code and fall to the floor, spent.
I don’t know how long I sit for. No one comes. No guards. No military. I think about Eddie. Did he know, when he told me to get the blaster? Probably.
Eventually, I pull myself to my feet and make my way back down to the plaza. Either it’s worked or it hasn’t. Time to find out.
I step outside and…
There are people everywhere, but I can’t feel any of them. For the first time in my life, I am by myself. I am alone, surrounded by hundreds of people.
I don’t realise I’m crying until I taste the tears on my lips.
And then every single person turns to me, their faces distorted in anger and sulky, petulant hate.
“I told you to make sure you put it in the right way up,” they say in Eddie’s horrible, whiny voice.
"You'll feel a little scratch. Won't hurt a bit," the man in uniform lies, placing Betty's right index finger on the biodat.
A sharp pain in the flesh of Betty's finger as the machine draws her blood to link her to her confession. She winces, more out of habit than need. It isn't the worst pain she's felt.
The uniform checks over the readings, seems happy, mumbles something into the radio on his shoulder, and goes to stand in the corner. His job done, he stares at the wall, ignoring her.
It isn't an invitation to run, Betty knows. It just means that they don't see her as particularly dangerous, despite what she did. She rubs her thumb against her index finger, smearing away the tiny pinpricks of blood until she's clean again. Satisfied, her hands return to the silk scarf in her lap, folding the material in soft loops, caressing her skin.
A creak as the door opens and a big man walks in, all shoulders and neck. There is something inescapably human about him, in his size, in the gunk in the corner of his left eye, his beard, the yellow nicotine stains on his teeth. Messy. They've sent a messy, fleshy man to interview her.
Betty's hands tighten on the scarf, a tight cord forming in the space between her fists.
"Elizabeth Bannek? My name's John," the man says, walking around her to the other side of the interview desk. "I need to have a few words with you. But I suspect you know that?"
"Yes," Betty says, dry and distant. Her body is in the room, but her voice is not. Her voice is tangled up, like the scarf, but somewhere else. Perhaps it's still in the cafeteria? She can remember screaming... Had that been her?
"Good," John says, dropping onto the chair opposite. He turns to the infostrip next to the biodat, stabbing at the delicate little pads with his gorilla fingers, each covered with coarse black hair, until a file springs into life in front of him.
Betty can't read it. The file's holographic, but only one way: for John's eyes only. On Betty's side of the table the holofile is opaque, on the other side it's clear and full of key little insights into her life. She knows what is says, anyway. The interview is a formality. Her grip relaxes on the scarf. It occurs to her how strange it is they let her keep it. She smooths it out across her lap and sits her hands neatly, palms flat, atop it.
"So, Elizabeth, let's get started. It says here you met..." John stumbles to a halt, he eyes narrowed on the holofile. "I can never pronounce these names..."
"Lauren," Betty says before the uniform can answer. "Her name was Lauren."
John's eyes widen at this, but he doesn't say anything. Good gorilla, but not quite well trained enough to hide his shock, just to not voice it.
He doesn't correct Betty on the name.
"I met Lauren four years ago, at work. She came to an away day with the VP," Betty continued. "We had to do some team building games, and she sat at our table. She was friendly. Sweet."
Betty brushes her thumb over the scarf, the silk soft and cool. She wishes she wasn't here. But it's good to see the little flashes of shock in the gorilla's stupid, meaty face every time she drops the pronoun. And what's the point of pretending?
They knew she'd done it – everyone knew.
"I didn't see her much then", she says. "Occasionally, when the VP would visit our department. And then, a year ago, I headed up a project and she was assigned to help me."
"Must have been a hell of a project, if the VP's, ah, assistant was given to it."
Betty smiles. "It was, yes. Big account, big money for the company. If it went off. We worked hard, late nights, early mornings. We got to know each other. I... I'd had feelings for her for a while."
She glances at the uniform, to see if he reacts. Nothing. Why couldn't he be the one interviewing her? Why does she have to have this dumb lump who blinks and sweats and breathes so heavily? Whose eyes narrowed when she mentioned her feelings for Lauren, as if she's done something unthinkable?
"So what happened next?" John asks, bringing Betty back into the room.
"With respect, Elizabeth, you're not here for 'nothing'. We have video footage of the event in the cafeteria. We have witness. We have -" he stops. Coughs. Runs his hands through his greasy black hair. "We have evidence, Elizabeth. Please, tell me what happened. Explain to me how you got here."
Sighing, Betty shifts her gaze to the biodat. The little green light blinks every three seconds to show it's working. Clean lines, right angled corners, white plastic veneer. Pretty. And the silk scarf under her hands, the one Lauren was wearing around her neck in the cafeteria.
"What do you want to know?"
"Tell me more about Lauren."
"She's five six, brunette, brown eyes -"
"We know all that. Tell me how you felt about her."
"She's... friendly. Funny. I'd catch her eye during meetings. We laughed at lot."
"We sent each other little messages, via the intra. Nothing... compromising. Nothing HR would complain about. Just jokes. Silly pictures. Stuff like that. But I... I fell in love with her."
Another quick glance at the uniform. He's still staring fixedly at the wall, expression perfectly blank, as if he isn't even listening. Lauren never looked like that, not when they were together.
A movement distracts her. John leaning back in his chair, the buttons on his shirt straining. Disgusting.
The room's too hot. Stomach churning. She needs to get away from this gorilla and the impassive, uniformed man. Needs to be somewhere quiet, by herself.
"I fell in love with her. I knew she didn't love me. That nothing would ever happen between us. But I thought we had something unique, anyway. I forgot... And then I saw her with Justina."
"Justina Berroux, the VP?"
"Yes. She just seemed so far away, and Lauren and I were so close. And then one day I saw them together. Justina was eating and Lauren was... she was laughing. Chatting. Smiling at Justina the way she smiled at me. And I realised what a lie it all was."
"I realised how ridiculous I'd been. What an idiot I'd made out of myself... How everyone must know that I'd fallen for a – for Lauren. And for what? I wasn't special. If anything, Lauren was just treating me that way to get me to work harder on the project... To put in all those extra hours. Justina had no doubt told her to."
"Elizabeth, Justina didn't tell Lauren to do anything. You do know that, don't you?"
Betty glares at John, gripping the scarf, twisting it around her hands until the skin underneath goes white. "Yes. Of course I know that. I'm not stupid."
"Because I wanted it to be real! I wanted it to be real! I wanted her to love me, to like me... to think I was interesting." Betty swallows, the anger disappearing as quickly as it had risen. Just like in the cafeteria. A moment of madness. "I'd liked her for so long. I forgot what she was."
Silence, expect for the sound of Betty and the gorilla breathing.
"This kind of thing isn't uncommon," John finally says. For the first time since sitting down, he glances at the uniformed man. "Lots of people... make that mistake."
"Not many go mad and kill one in the middle of the cafeteria, though."
"Elizabeth... you didn't kill Lauren."
"I... No. I just meant you didn't kill her." He nods his head at the uniform. "You can't kill them, Elizabeth. You do know that, don't you?"
She drops her eyes, staring at the blue silk scarf. The one that Lauren wore around her neck. A little spot of darker blue appears, and then another. She's crying.
"I love her."
"It was a business model. Designed to make people at their ease, to build team work, competitive advantage. Even its name... Lauren... Its serial number was L000RA3N33N. Did you know that?"
"I love her. I didn't mean to hurt her. I was just so... so... angry."
"You didn't hurt it, Elizabeth. You can't hurt them. But they can hurt us. You're not the first one to forget what they are. It isn't uncommon. That's why I'm here. That's why you're here."
"You're not going to send me to prison?"
John shakes his head, no. "For what? Property damage? Your company has insurance against this kind of thing. All the big ones do."
"Like I said, it's not uncommon. You're not going to prison, Elizabeth. But it is my professional opinion you should stay with us for a while. Just a few weeks, while you come to terms with what happened. The orderly will take you to your room."
At the mention of its title, the uniformed orderly wakes, smiles at Elizabeth, offers her its hand. Clean, hairless skin, no lines, no imperfections.
Pausing to tie Lauren's scarf around her neck, Betty stands and takes the orderly's hand.
Everyone catches the virus, sooner or later.
I suppose in that sense maybe it wasn’t a virus, or something you caught. Maybe it was better to think of it like a fact of life, like tax or a smear test. Unpleasant, but dealable. In fact, I believe most people do think of it that way, by this point in time.
The virus began... I’m not sure, actually. Some time ago. Before I was born... Thirty years ago? It’s a little vague. Everything is a little vague: me, the TV, the postman. We’re all confused. Not so much that we can’t work or function, it’s just hard to focus sometimes, hard to hold onto a thought, harder to hold a fact.
It’s not distressing.
No. That’s not right. Sometimes, when something happens in some place, some other city or country, and you watch the news and think how terrible it seems, how lucky you are to be here… and then later, you want to... you know? Share the feeling? But the facts have gone. You remember something happened, and how it made you feel, but the story seems empty somehow, without the bad news to compare with the good feeling.
Then it’s a little frustrating. But the posters help. The ’ment put up posters around the place, keeping you focused, helping you to remember what you need to remember. Elections, fuel prices, gossip. Things you need to know. The virus, of course. The ’ment makes sure we remember the virus is out there.
Everyone catches the virus. That’s what they say.
It must have been a long time ago, because now it’s pretty standard. I think it must take some time for something to become standard, because people wouldn’t like it, would they? People wouldn’t have just accepted the virus. Or the cure. There must have been great debates, long ago. With white haired men and women. In white dresses, with green leaves around their heads. That image seems important, seems to fit. I probably learnt about it school.
So this is what I know. I know I know this because I’ve always known it, even when I’ve been vaguing in and out. It’s like a crystal inside me, spiky and sparkly and it won’t quite disappear, no matter what else does. The virus, everyone gets it. Some people die, but not many, not really. There is a cure, and the cure is free. You get some symptoms, you go to the supital and usually you get an injection and leave after a day or so. It’s not big deal, not really.
If you’re out of the loop you can still die, poor or strung out on something like Pliab or whatever. Pliab, it’s nice. Good. You feel sick as a dog the next morning, but at the moment you’re in, it’s good. Most people try it at some point. Some don’t give it up. I used to do it a lot.
Maybe that’s why I feel so... why I drift? It catches your mind, holds it tight, brushes it gently. That feeling you get, when you’re in love? It’s early, and you’re laying together and the world moves, slightly, so that you’re tilted backwards and all your gravity is on the other person and you know they have you safe and tight and sound and warm… That’s Pliab.
So yeah, everyone catches the virus.
The virus was some kind of war weapon, it was let go to end a war. I guess it worked, cos we don’t have wars now. You see them on TV, but they’re not our wars. Sometimes people go fight, young boys and girls. Where do they go..? Away, somewhere bad. But they have to. You see. They pay for the cure.
They don’t get to choose, they get chosen. Early, at birth. A lottery, a spinning wheel that chooses the supitals, chooses the babies. So they live well, get taken away from their family, but they live well. Then they go fight, fight for the cure so everyone else gets to live. The lottery is fair, really. The ’ment says it’s fair.
But... that spiky, sparkly crystal... it didn’t feel fair. Not then. Not now. I think it’s that feeling that keeps me lucid. I don’t circle. Like the men and women, with red cloaks and white wigs, and big wooden hammers, the ones I told you about; the ones who debated the rights and wrongs of the cure. I know those people must have thought hard about it, because people wouldn’t just accept the cost; they’d argue. I saw it once, on a history program.
I’ve had the virus. I was cleaning, I think. I was leaning over something white… the bed? Or some clothes? I can’t… I’m not sure, but I was at home, and I was leaning over something white, and the blood began. A river, a roaring, thundering waterfall of deep, black, rotten bloody gunge came up from inside my stomach, up past my throat, pushing and funnelling out past my mouth and nose.
The force of it knocked me onto my back and the bloody geyser shot up, smearing the windows and hitting the ceiling. I thought I would die. I knew that this great rush of blood was a sign of my insides liquidising, turning to slush, and really nothing more serious than that. The ambulances were already on their way, I could hear the paramedics climbing the stairs. The sensors in the flat, that amount of blood triggers the warning, and the ambulances are never more than five minutes away.
They have to be. Or people die. Then more babies get chosen, more soldiers go to fight. So the ’ment keeps the ambulances close.
Everyone catches the virus. It’s in the air, or the water, or the food. Somewhere, everywhere.
I wanted another baby. It’d been years since mine was chosen and taken. I wondered sometimes if I’d seen him... her..? It on the news, fighting for me. I’m not sure what it would look like. Me, I guess. Maybe I'd seen it, and not realised. I hoped so. I wanted it to still be alive and good somewhere.
I was entitled to another one, because the first was chosen. I didn’t need to go through clearance again. I wouldn’t pass I think, not this time. Too much Pliab, and the crystal... would they notice that? Probably. It spiked inside my mind.
An example: You know those grey stands you walk through, when you enter the shops? The ones which check your guilt, see if you’re stealing, or carrying, or whatever. The noise they made – so loud, like... like... what’s loud? An elephant. Like an elephant. So, I want another baby, and I can have one, no muss, no fuss. Because they took mine; she was chosen. She was called Milly, after my mother.
I owe her my life, because she makes the cure possible. I saw her once on TV, and I felt so proud. And I don’t need to go through clearance again. But I’m worried they’d notice the bitterness inside me. The anger that catches me off guard.
Sometimes, I feel so angry, it feels like the blood again, filling me and consuming me and like it must, surely, explode out of me. I’m sure that if I had to be cleared for birth again I’d fail the test. This anger, this crystal, it sets the store alarms off. They sense it, you know? I shop off the net now. I don’t leave the house. But a baby would change that. I’d replace my baby boy, Michael. Named for my father.
I mailed the Birthdep and explained what I wanted, filled in a few forms and already the nostrogen has been taken out of my water, and soon I’ll be sent some details of men looking to have a baby. It’d take a while for my cycle to recover, the noestrogen to get out of my blood. Noestrogen in the water.
Noestrogen has saved so many people. No huge families, no unwanted children, violence down, aggression down. Nothing for us to do to keep it this way except use the water. Drink tea, water, coffee, wash food, wash plates, shower, brush teeth. The ’ment help us so much. They help us so much. And they’re giving me my baby back.
Not sure how long it’ll take for me to be able to have another baby. Can’t really remember how it happened the first time. I know they’ve got to change the water, and the notice sent to my infowall say that it’ll take some time for the water to change me back again, make me pregnancy-viable.
Everyone wants the virus, but everyone drinks the water.
I shop off the net, safe in my house. I love to shop, like to browse the pages, try thing on, put them back. Sometimes I forget the things I’ve reserved, but it doesn’t matter. A reminder is sent to the infowall. I get Pliab sometimes. You can get it from the net, if you’re careful. Just avoid the supkets. Go straight to the IP, to the source. The infowall doesn’t know about it. Or maybe it does. How much does it watch? Can’t remember ever seeing it turn off. It doesn’t seem to worry about how much I take, even though it’s illegal.
Should I worry about that? Does my wall care if I die? Maybe not. It makes me tea when I wake up. It doesn’t have to. Occasionally it makes coffee too, without being asked. Water now, though. I’m gonna drink a lot of water now.
The infowall was invented sometime around when LCD paper came out. Seems weird, how did people know what they were doing before the infowall? It’s like… you know, how did people organise their day? I’d forget everything without it. When I’ve been vaguing, the infowall is there to fill me in, catch me up. I like to watch history on it. It doesn’t like showing me history, says it’s not healthy, but it does anyway. Maybe it’s broken.
I wish I was sick again, back in the white room.
This morning I wake, shower, being sure to hold my mouth open to catch as much water as possible. Soap gets in, and I cough, and suddenly for a second, I remember the blood. I remember how it stung my nose and throat, just before it surged up from my lungs and bowels.
It felt, for a fraction of a second, like a sneeze, but bigger. Like expelling something large from me, something that was part of me but then it wasn’t.
Pliab. Time to order more Pliab.
I think I’ve got the virus.
I see her getting off the train, eyes narrowed against the sun, an Army surplus shirt tied around her waist, rucksack hanging off one shoulder. I wave to her but she doesn’t see me. She looks straight at me, but she doesn’t see me.
“Lucy! Luce – Lucinda!”
A line appears between her eyebrows, and then disappears. “Jesus-fucking-Christ,” she screams, running towards me, oblivious to the angry glare from the mother standing behind her. “What the fuck have you done to your hair?”
“It’s blonde, that’s all.” My hand drifts up to my new hair, brushing it back, behind my ear. But it’s too short now, and it falls forward. “And short,” I add, needlessly.
The little line reappears on Lucy’s forehead, but she doesn’t say anything more about my hair. “So, what’s the plan? Please tell me it’s not gonna be L-plates and chocolate cocks? I’ll get back on the train.”
“No, no. Brian’s mother’s coming… God, I couldn’t… We’re having a picnic in the park.”
Lucy grabs my hand, the one without the ring, and squeezes. “Bollocks to that. I’ve travelled halfway down the country to see you. C’mon, there’s an offy over there – let’s get a bottle of vodka and fuck the rest of it off.”
And suddenly I’m laughing, and I realise how much I’ve missed her. I don’t mind my short hair anymore, or the fake nails, or the ring that’s just a little too big, a little too square. The sun is shining, and I’m with my best friend.
I’m getting married tomorrow.
I let Lucy drag me to the off-licence and, although I make a show of resistance, we both know we’re not coming out empty handed.
Vivian, Brian’s mother, purses her lips when Lucy produces a bottle of vodka and another of spiced run from her bag, but doesn’t say anything. Perhaps she’s silenced by the squeals of delight from the other girls?
My hen do is small, which is fine, really. Vivian’s here, along with some of Brian’s female friends from school and his office, and a smattering of women I know from the Trust. And, of course, Lucy.
We find a spot in the park, Vivian sets out the food to her liking, and everyone starts chatting. Is this what a hen do is like? I’ve not been to one before. I suppose I had the same idea Lucy did – L plates and chocolate penises – but this is nice. Civilised. Sedate. Mature.
The sun sits above us, and then slowly begins to fall back down to earth, dragged towards the horizon.
“Tell us how you and Brian met,” one of the girls asks me.
She’s only being polite. Everyone knows the story by now. But still, they all sit up, grinning at me. My gaze slips away, landing on Lucy. She’s smoking, ignoring Vivian’s discreet coughs. She winks at me, and I’m laughing again, a bubble of happiness in my chest which swells until all I can do is laugh.
Everyone probably thinks I’m remembering how Brian and I met, and that’s ok. I don’t really mind what they think – not in an argumentative way, it’s just easier, isn’t it?
I start the story. I know how to tell it, too – where to pause, which words to emphasise to elicit a laugh or an awwww.
But this time it feels strange, the words uncomfortable in my mouth, like finding an unexpected piece of plastic in your lunchtime sandwich. God, I hope they can’t tell. The story of how I met Brian is cute, and everyone always says it shows we’re meant to be together. Vivian loves it. I can’t get it wrong.
I glance again at Lucy. She’s still smoking, but her face has gone still and she’s pulled her legs up to her chest, her free arm wrapped around her knees.
“Actually, Lucy and I were on a date when I met Brian,” I hear myself say – what am I saying? That’s not how the story begins.
Lucy’s eyebrows shoot up her forehead, but she doesn’t say anything. She just tilts her head slightly, watching me.
“I mean… Well, Lucy and I were at uni together, you know, and that’s where I met Brian,” I finish lamely. Why did I say Lucy and I were on a date? Alcohol and sun, probably, muddling me. Vivian was right, we should have kept the picnic dry.
But I remember how to tell the story. I begin running through it easily, answering questions and filling in detail without really thinking about it.
Instead, I’m thinking about Lucy.
Five years ago, when she was still pretending to be interested men, she’d been set up on a blind date. She was only a few months away from coming out, although I don’t think I realised it then. She had this blind date and she didn’t want to go, but for whatever reason she wouldn’t cancel it either.
It became a double date, her and this guy and me and Brian.
Lucy and I arrived at the restaurant; actually a pub that did meals, but Brian – I now know – likes the authenticity of a pub over the pretension of a restaurant. He was waiting for us, scowling at the bar. His friend was late, he explained. He was embarrassed, I could tell, and it wasn’t his fault he came across as dour. His friend never showed up, but the three of us ate and drank, and the whole thing was over by ten. He took my number, and left without giving me his.
It was awful, I realise abruptly.
It wasn’t silly or romantic – him nervous and shy, me friendly and smiling. It was awkward and painful and really, incredibly boring.
The sun disappears, and with it the other hens. I offer to walk Lucy to her hotel. She shrugs. She’s been quiet all afternoon. I wonder if she has a headache – her smoking and drinking picked up steam as the day wore on.
She’s walking beside me, smothered in angry silence. I don’t know what to say to her, so I don’t say anything. We eventually arrive at Lucy’s hotel, set back from the main road behind a high hedge.
“Thanks for coming.”
“Course I fucking came.”
She turns to leave.
My hand reaches out and grabs her arm, her skin warm, the heat of her pressing through her thin shirt, making my palm tingle. A sharp pain in the base of my stomach, strangely tense, pulling me in, towards it…
She steps closer to me. My hand’s still on her arm, and she has her hand on my hip. The pain in my stomach is hot now, aching, unfamiliar. Powerful and… delicious.
I step back.
Her hand drops.
“Do you need a taxi in the morning?” I ask.
“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I know how to find you.”
She leaves me standing in the hotel car park. I feel sick. Too much sun, too much alcohol. And then my phone buzzes; it’s Brian asking where I am. Vivian wants me back at her house.
I leave Lucy’s hotel, and head towards my future.
It’s not quite light outside, and the grey dawn drips slowly into the small room through the porthole dead centre in the wall opposite the bed.
It’s cold outside of the bed, and not warm within it. The outside world is silent, fifty more seconds of solitude before the sun flairs through the round window, and the noise of the birds will begin.
The noise of the birds. Time to look at the ceiling, to blink slowly.
The ceiling is an off-white, how far off China cannot tell. Colour choices include magnolia, eggshell, teal, cream. The ceiling and the walls must, can only, be one of these, but now China cannot remember which. The colour of the ceiling is calming, and when Chair leaves the apartment the colour will inoffensively welcome a new occupant. China should know, should remember, but her thoughts have been preoccupied. It doesn’t matter, as the information is readily available in the building stats which are displayed, menu-like, via LCD outside the main entrance.
Included in the information is: Paint shade. Also: Room dimensions. Furnishings (bed, chair, table, chair, desk, chair, television, fridge, internet, cooker, shower, toilet, bin, bin, bin, sanitary bin, sharps bin, food waste, plastics waste). Carpet (colour and thickness). Window (dimensions and quantity) Water temperature (hot and cold, minimum to maximum). Heating and air conditioning times (January through to December, 00.00 to 23.59). Average age, health, fertility of occupants.
Not included in the information: grey spot, 5cm in diameter. The spot is in the near left corner, just within the line of sight, visible from the bed, and is the same shade as the uniform worn by Medisimms: a pale, dull shade of grey designed not to over-excite or over-emphasise any unwanted, unexpected colour that may have been caused by a patient.
China stares at this sport every morning, and in addition to her uncertainty over the ceiling's shade, she is no longer aware how long she has been waking early to lie, eyes open, blinking slowly and seeing the grey spot.
It is small, and it may have been there when she took up the apartment, 6.25 months ago, after the death of the previous occupant. A thought, unsolicited, darts through her mind, as incongruous as the grey spot itself:
Perhaps the spot was caused during the death of the previous occupant.
China is unsure how death happens, and knows only that death was a cessation. One day she, like the other occupant of her flat, would stop. The Medisimms would know when she stopped because her heartbeat would cease and an alert would send a departure vehicle to her apartment. She would be found, removed, burned. Then someone else would take over the apartment, usually within 6.23 hours.
Perhaps when the previous occupant had stopped, their final exhalation – a plosive puff of some syllable – was pushed to the ceiling and caught, staining the off-white, smooth surface. Perhaps the grey spot was a final word, a final sound or final thought.
China wakes at 05.29 and sees the spot, every day.
The ceiling, possibly the final view of the previous occupant, holds a number of interesting features, all of which fascinate China. The light comes from hidden, recessed discs which will, between 05.30 and 22.00, throw spotlights of amber onto the eggshell carpet. The light will define the flat at first but, as it moves from ceiling floor, this crisp definition will fade, and by 22.00 there will be no indication that the illumination was, at its beginning, so organised.
China finds it easier to simply not look at the floor. The angle of the ceiling and the wall is a clean 45 degrees. The edge is sharp, less irritating than the seeping light. The walls and the ceiling meet in an orderly fashion, respectfully adjacent to one another.
China’s eyes move slowly from the spot, via the far left corner across to the far right corner, contented and settled by the uniformity of the edges, before moving back, centring on the porthole window, spaced exactly between the two meeting points of the back wall and the left and right walls, placed at two-thirds of the height of the room from the floor.
China closes her eyes, preparing herself for the sudden explosion of light that will swell through the window at 05.30.
China wants to open her eyes, because you open your eyes at 05.30. Everyone knows that.
The alarm sounds, and light floods the room, approximating the dawn.
Lockstep. The crowd moves fast, and China slides into the group, keeps pace and looking straight ahead. There is no necessity to look anywhere else. The crowd is dense and, as long as China keeps pace, it will carry her safely to her destination. Stare forwards.
05.29, and China wakes.
It’s not quite light outside, and the grey light drips slowly into the small room through the porthole dead centre in the wall opposite the bed. It’s cold outside of the bed, and not warm within it.
The outside world is silent.
Solitude before the ‘sun’ flairs through the round window, and the noise of the birds, tinny and hallow through the wall speakers, will begin. The noise of the birds. Time to look at the ceiling, to blink slowly.
China looks at the grey spot, and thinks about the previous occupant. Recently she has spent between ten and seventeen seconds of her illicit minute thinking about the previous occupant.
She wonders how he died, and what his last word was. According to the building information, he had been 34 years old. China was 31. He had died in the apartment, at 18.23; 01;10;2056. He had been 1.8812m and 92.90410452kg (China was 1.756m 69.85kg). He'd had blonde hair and brown eyes.
The grey spot seems darker this morning.
Was it the light? Was the light darker? China blinks, not wanting to rub her eyes and risk being seen via the screens.
The light doesn’t seem to have changed in any way. It’s muted, staining the off-white walls in the same way it has for the past 6.25 months. Would I notice if the light changed? Would I see the difference?
Lockstep, look forward.
Was the previous occupant a father?
Perhaps the grey spot gets darker as the previous occupant’s children get older? Is that possible?
Will the grey spot get larger?
Will I make it larger?
Will I leave anything behind me, when I stop?
The alarm rings and the bright light of dawn floods the apartment.
It’s almost true what they say about the moment you know you’re about to die.
That moment when the world stops and your life flashes in front of your eyes.
I’m stuck here, at the second when the car started to roll. After the cobweb of shattered glass appeared on the windscreen, but before gravity starts to take control. The junk on the dashboard’s still there. The smoke from what has turned out to be my final cigarette is still curling toward the roof. This is the second when my unconscious mind realises what is about to happen, and floods my blood with adrenaline, dopamine, or whatever it is that’s burning every synapse in my brain, one by one.
That’s what causes the flashbacks. Each memory flickering briefly as it disappears forever. Since I can appreciate all of this, I take it that it wasn’t any part of me that cracked the windscreen, so I can call my self unlucky that I can see all that was, once more.
I say unlucky, because, well, exactly what lurks in your past that you’d rather forget?
I caught on to this understanding too late, when it became apparent that my failures and moments of crippling shame outweigh anything I would, ultimately, be proud of.
Sure, there's good stuff in there: its not everyday you get to rewatch a TV show from your childhood, meet your first love again, or any one of a host of thousand perfect moments, frozen somewhere in your hind brain, just above the spine - snapping, ouch - for when it’s the last time you’ll get to visit them.
Shame, then, that that’s not all that’s been stashed away.
Very handily, to provide a counterbalance, and ensure that you don’t leave this plane of existence feeling like it was all a blast and you’d basically been a good person, the bad stuff’s been kept too.
It comes as something of a relief, when the flashing life ends. I know that I won’t have to go through it again. With that sudden purge of history, the only thing left to be processed by my overcooked mind, is the inside of the car.
I like to listen to happy music.
I always have. I remember when I was a child – you know, like, really a child. Some people they say like things like 'when I was a child' and they mean it ironically, like 'when my psychology wasn’t fully formed', as if personality is some lump of clay that has to be fired in a kiln to become real.
Not that that isn’t a good metaphor. I mean, as they go, it’s fine. Like, the fires of life and experience create you, and I get that, I really do. You’re nothing but clay, being shaped by some external force, God or your parents or your gender or something like that, and then bam! You’re in the fire and suddenly that’s you, set and done and the only way you’ll change is if somehow you get shattered into a hundred tiny little shards and that’s it, isn’t it? That’s you all over the floor.
But I don’t mean psychosocially or psychologically, I mean actually.
I saw this album on my dad’s music shelf, and it had this dustbin on it, only the dustbin was crying. Like, a crying dustbin, right? So I was interested. I guess it could have just as easily have been that other album with the rainbow triangle, but it wasn’t. A rainbow triangle is cool, don't get me wrong, but it isn’t a crying dustbin. So I begged to listen to it. Begged. And my dad was like, 'you wont like it, it’s sad'. But I was adamant. And I listened and I loved it. I really did. I’m gonna be a pop star. And I thought, I am. I’m gonna be a pop star. Or an actress. Or an author. Or something amazing.
The other one, the one that goes you look so cold tonight, I liked that, as well. I really did. And I knew what it was about, even then, but I liked it. It was raw. Real. It was love. Love, love, love. I mean, it was positive.
I suppose I should explain what I think is positive because otherwise, nothing makes sense, does it? Topic sentence, reasons and examples.
Actually, I don’t think in topic sentences. I don’t really think in sentences. I mean, I act in sentences. Like, for example, I’m ironing right now, and the iron goes backwards and forwards, SVO, SVO, SVO. It’s punctuated by hisses of steam, and every now and again I’ll throw in a conjunction in the form of a handful of water sprinkled across the cotton.
It’s a pattern, a rhythm, and it’s logical and it’s linear and it makes sense.
I don’t like ironing. It always seems futile. Likes it’s going nowhere really fucking fast. But I do it now because it needs to be done. I have to do it now, or else what have I been working towards? The ironing is the icing on the cake. The ironing, done right now, makes it a gift, makes it more than a thoughtful thought.
And I’m listening to my music. And it’s happy.
I think it’s happy, anyway, but also I think sometimes I don’t know what ‘happy’ actually is. Like, I went out tonight. I hadn’t meant to. But I was invited and I said no, but I was invited again and then it seemed real and so I went and I was happy. And there was karaoke, which is something I don't really understand, although, of course, I’d never have the guts to sing. I mean, to actually sing in front of people is probably the bravest thing you could ever do, right? And anyway, I can’t sing, but I like the songs. And I’d love to sing but oops there goes gravity and I just can’t.
Back and forwards, the iron runs like a train devoid of tracks and timetables and angry commuters, like a train that can finally, really, be a train. It fulfils its potential. I guess that’s what I’m saying. And sad songs do that because they make you feel sad and that makes me feel happy. Take these sad songs, they’re really alive, they’re doing it, and when I get back from hell again I'll understand it even better.
I need to iron three shirts, and so I set about it and the iron does it and it’s simple and it’s happy. I mean, it’s satisfying, you know?
A sip of my drink to help it along because a drink always helps things go along. It softens things. I don’t know how people don’t drink, really I don’t. Sometimes, when I get very drunk, I like to cry and listen to music because it’s a mad, mad world and because it frees me. That’s happiness too, I think. So, yeah, I like happy music.
But I should really be concentrating on the ironing right now because we’re going away tomorrow, only he doesn’t know.
Well, he shouldn’t know. He does know. He confronted me, 'where are we going tomorrow'? Of course I tried to say 'nowhere', but he did that thing you know people do? When they just look at you like the lowliest piece of shit in the world. That way his eyes narrow and he’s tall so he can really look down his nose and it always makes me feel like I don’t need no needle because I’m really, really stupid. So I told him. And he went to bed.
But I’m committed now, so I need to get ironing. Because if I don’t iron there’ll be no clothes. The steam is quite nice too. It burns a little and sometimes I can run the iron close to my skin or even on my skin and that burns, too. It’s quite refreshing, like a sauna but cheaper and, you know, the steam feels like I need a respirator which is kinda cool, too.
So yeah, sorry, I like happy songs.
Or I like songs that show me how I feel, even if I don’t feel happy. Actually, feeling happy is a funny thing. I mean, it’s nice, of course, but sometimes when I feel happy I feel nervous. Kinda like a deer, perhaps, or a wild rabbit. I’m there in the clearing, enjoying the grass – ironic because I can’t enjoy the grass anymore – but at any minute ‘man will enter the forest’. Sometimes it’s easier to be nervous, or rather being nervous makes me happy I’m only happy when it rains because it’s familiar and we’re creatures of habit really aren’t we? No better than dogs, really, are we? Whistle and we come running, right?!
Looks are deceiving, making me believe it because, you know, I really thought that he’d like this. I know I haven’t done very well, recently. You know. I thought I could do something nice. Unfamiliar. Kooky. But I got it wrong. And so he’s looking at me, 'where are we going', and I’m thinking we’re 'going on holiday by mistake', like, that was supposed to be a joke I was gonna say when we were in the car, right?
I suppose it was a bit lame, but I’d built it up in my mind, and then I didn’t have the courage to say it, not in the hallway at midnight with his eyes all the way at the top of his nose. And I just felt so pretty, oh so pretty, pretty vacant, that if I said it then it would be worse. I said 'we’re going to such and such and I’m gonna iron your clothes for you so when we get back you don’t have to'. You can relax, I mean. That was my idea.
But anyway, at least the iron knows what’s what, right? And I’ve got my drink next to me. And my happy music in my ears. So I guess it’s not that bad.
Elaine pulled the basement door closed and leant against the wood, her chest rising and falling. Eyes closed, she waited for her heart to slow its frantic beating, for the goosebumps along her arms to settle.
Slowly the cozy, quiet atmosphere of her workshop calmed her, and she opened her eyes. Computers sat on tables, blinking as programs compiled lazily, far removed from the stabbing urgency of the horrors below. There was a little cot in the corner, big enough for one, though occasionally she might squeeze another in, when she could be bothered to go through the anxiety of sending a meet and waiting to see if she'd get reply. A photograph, the glass frame cloudy with fingerprints, sat on the floor by the cot, showing two young people in t-shirts and jeans, arms around each other, grinning in front of a huge metal server.
Her MiKat jumped down from her work station and padded over to her, his yellow eyes flickering. He wound his way around her ankles, purring discordantly.
“Again?” Elaine asked him, picking him up. “All right. Let’s see what we can do.”
She flicked the switch behind his left ear that sent him to sleep, and gently opened the panel in the back of his head before connecting him up to one of the lax computers with an adapted u-busk.
The MiKat was fifth generation, but she didn’t want to upgrade him. He was a gift, like the photograph. Besides, she’d never get a replacement on the warranty, not after all the little adjustments she’d made. She set to work fixing his purr, and for a short time was able to forget the monster in the basement.
“I don’t know how you manage it,” Jean stated. “Honestly, I don’t. You’re so brave. We all think so. We were saying just the other day how brave you are.”
Elaine found her smile, offered it to Jean. “How is everyone?”
“Oh, well, the same, the same. Annabelle got her promotion, did you see?”
“No… I’ve not had much time…”
An expression passed quickly across Jean’s face, something like distaste but less abrasive. Pity? Embarrassment? Elaine couldn’t be sure, and it was gone too quickly for her to make a study of it. Jean turned her wrist over, tapped the button on her Sok and pulled up her feed. She flicked through the most recent stories until she found the one about Annabelle.
“Here, see? She’s Head of Augmotions now,” Jean said, shifting slightly so Elaine could read the headline.
“You have been busy, haven’t you?” Jean replied, a little laugh accompanying her question. Elaine found herself wondering what was funny. She laughed as well, to be safe.
“Annabelle’s working on a prototype to help survivors – rape, war crimes, water refugees. A new therapy implant,” Jean clarified. “They’ll be a Nobel, if she’s successful. It's good work. All approved.”
Elaine scanned the listicle, her gaze passing over the pictures of the survivors’ before and afters, of Annabelle and the infographs, to focus on the four lines of text.
“Biotech? But it's banned?”
“I thought you'd... You didn't see?"
"I've been busy."
Another quick expression passed across Jean's face, this one tighter than the last, making her look older. "Oh. I probably shouldn't have... I just assumed you knew. The UWN lifted the blocks last month,” she said, double-tapping her Sok and pulling up the right feed, pointing to a picture of a man signing a release. “See? Abeni signed it himself. Listen, I know this might be hard for you, but-”
Jean flickered, her avatar stream buffering. Elaine waited for the stream to resume, thinking.
The block on biotech had been in place for the last seven years, ever since the event at MIT, making it impossible to share research or gather data, even on the grey web. But if the ban had been lifted, that meant information was flowing again.
A buzz shot through the workshop, making Elaine jump.
The familiar, stinging sickness filled her stomach. She typed a message on her Sok explaining her abrupt departure, pushed it to Jean, and shut down the meet.
It was time to feed the monster.
Setting the empty glass down on the floor by her cot, Elaine re-read the listical, pausing this time on the images of Abeni signing the release, opening the data stream. She tapped her Sok, pulled up a video of the same event, and watched in UDHD+ the precise moment the gold nib of his black stylus hit the screen. How had she missed it? How had she not known?
Too busy doing nothing, filling her days with odds and ends between feeding and tending to the monster, that's how. Too many hours hiding up here, ignoring the outside world.
The MiKat let out a little brup, jumped up onto the cot and butted his head against her arm. Elaine rubbed his ears with her right hand, reaching across the wrist of her left in such a way that she could still watch the video on the Sok. Again and again, looping back to the beginning every forty five seconds, Abeni signed the document. Eventually the MiKat's systems, the ones Elaine had tinkered with, ruining his warranty, decided he'd been affectionate enough. He wandered off in search of something else equally cat-like to occupy his run time.
Elaine closed the Sok, poured another glass of whiskey. Swirled the glass, watching the way the alcohol caused the liquid to hold to the smooth surface, caught against the glass... fighting gravity. She downed it, drunk enough now not to notice the sting. Poured another.
Biotech. Biotech was back.
Tipping herself off the low cot, she clambered to her feet and made her way over to the table on the far wall. Her calendar shone white with meet requests, customers wanting to know when she'd be done fixing their tech, if she could crack their MiPets, whether she was the type of free-lancer who'd do purges or retcons. She flicked it to the side, opened the Torz program, and spent the next few hours drifting through the grey web, picking up information, watching as the threads of knowledge slowly began to weave their way back into the whole.
After a while she began commenting, hiding herself behind a purged avatar, and then writing her own posts. Conversations began, and her calendar flickered as new meets were pushed to her fake Sok account.
The alarm buzzed at 10.30, reminding her it was time to go back downstairs, into the basement.
Elaine turned the MiKat on, her lower lip caught between her teeth as she waited for him to reboot.
Ten seconds, twenty… His yellow eyes flickered, his tail twitching as her new code was incorporated into his source files. The MiKat shuddered, and then, slowly, got on his feet. He blinked at her. Reaching out, Elaine brushed her fingers against his head and then, when he pressed his face into her hand, she started to rub his ears.
Had it worked? She'd meddled with her MiKat, a attempt to program him to feel. How could she test it?
Elaine reached over with her free hand and picked up her soldering iron, the tip still hot from affixing the new chip to his board, and quickly pressed the iron against the MiKat’s back, pulling away before the heat could damage him permanently.
Nothing, except the stink of singed faux fur.
God damn it. Eight weeks of work, eight weeks of ignored meets and late repair jobs, and the code hadn’t worked. Maybe she wasn’t up to it? Maybe they’d been right to fire her, to strip her of her doctorate and licenses. She dropped her head onto the table top, trying to ignore the memories of her tribunal, of the ethics committee, and the doctors at University Hospital… the horror on their faces when they'd seen what she’d done.
What she’d created.
No wonder biotech had been banned, her avatar gagged. No wonder Jean only pushed her virtual meets, never coming to visit her any more. None of the others even bothered with that.
The alarm buzzed. Elaine lifted her head.
Pulling herself to her feet, she patted the MiKat’s head and turned to face the basement door. God, she longed to stay in her workshop. The wooden eaves which leaned across her, covering her; the little round window that let in a disc of sunlight, the fold-up cot in the corner, and, filling the room, her work. Not the ridiculous bits of tech-support she did the pay the bills, to cover the food and equipment she needed to keep the monster quiet – her real work. The work they'd banned from her from; the work the UWN had banned the world from, until a few months ago.
But she’d failed again, hadn’t she? The MiKat hadn’t reacted to the heat of the soldering iron.
And now the monster needed her.
Elaine shut down her computer, turned off the soldering iron and packed away the detritus of her failure. The MiKat sat on her chair, purring steadily. At least she’d managed to fix that, even if she couldn’t fix anything else. She exited her workshop and climbed down the stairs, to where the monster lived.
Machinery beeped at her, angry at being overlooked, scolding her for being late. The monster lay on its slab, surrounded by wires and tubes, by the tech that regulated its breathing, its heartbeat, its brain activity. That kept it alive.
The monster’s eyes were cracked open, its teeth yellow and black in its loose mouth. She didn’t bother brushing them anymore. No one else came to deal with it, so there didn’t seem much point. Besides, if she brushed its teeth she had to lean in over its face, see the nothingness in its eyes.
Dribble ran from the corner of its lips and through the matted hair on its jaw.
Elaine concentrated on her own mouth, stretching the muscles in her cheeks to manipulate her lips. Smiled at it.
The monster closed its eyes. Went back to wherever it lived, while its body was kept alive by the machines that stretched across the whole first floor of Elaine’s house. If it lived anywhere at all, that was.
She changed its catheter, refreshed the drips, noted down the monster’s blood pressure, pulse, temperature. Next she did the injections, shifted the monster’s position on the slab to avoid sores (a mistake she’d made at the beginning when, seven years ago, this had all been new to her), and pushed all the data to University Hospital’s Neurological Department’s Sok. Finally, she ran quick diagnostics on the machines and checked the generator and back-up generator were functional.
And then she sat next to the monster, held its hand, and tried to feel something other than shame and anger and exhaustion.
Later that evening, Elaine left the monster sleeping and returned to her attic workshop. The MiKat jumped down from her desktop and padded over to her, but he fritzed halfway across the room and began turning in circles.
Sighing, Elaine picked him up and switched him off. She took the MiKat back to her work station and began turning on her computers.
“Ok, Adam Two. Time to start again.”
Cinderella in the style of Tom Clancy
II was set this task as part of a writing course. All apologies to Mr Clancy for what follows!
The Bluebell Woods, 51.0651° N; 0.0313° W, 22:57
The ‘footman’ whipped the horses into a frenzy, the sharp taste of night biting against his exposed face, the sky above crystalline, cold, contemptuous. The coach, such as it was, creaked a warning. Its reinforced domed surface, modelled to protect the precious contents inside, was not built for such a violent journey. Created to withstand the elements from a stationary position, the coach’s original blueprints had foretold the limitations the three newly-formed footmen now found themselves battling. Squeaks, the eldest, had recognised this fact and had challenged the Purple Lady’s decision, only to be met with a derisive tilt of her chin. The Purple Lady believed such behaviour earned her Squeaks' respect, an assumption he hoped one day to have the chance to disabuse her of.
Squeaks whipped the horses again, remorselessly, urgently, as though the flick of leather against their hides might imbue them with the same strange advancements he had been augmented with. The young blood riding shotgun next to him winced; for all his big talk back at base about how he could make the ride single-pawed, he was barely out of his mother’s nest and had no place being on this mission.
A forest is a dangerous place for the arrogant, the foolish, and the young. Trees battled each other for access to light, and the crunch of dead leaves and the snap of breaking branches under their wheels told their own stories; a thousand-kilometre graveyard, the bones of the weak now translated into jarring bumps as the coach sped towards the rendezvous point where the package was to be delivered.
If the coach held that long.
Squeaks narrowed his eyes and raised his whip.
The Palace Ballroom, 50.8389° N; 1.9781° W, 23:19
Charming observed the dance, steely grey eyes constantly flickering from person to person as he wondered which was the deadliest threat. Never formally trained, he had instead learnt the secrets of spycraft in what is known informally as the SCWE method: Smile, Charm, Watch, Escape. His natural skills had led to his nickname, although no one but Charming knew how ironic the hated moniker was.
Charm was going to be his downfall tonight, though he worked hard now—too late—to undermine his reputation.
The next potential approached the throne, a carefully constructed smile on her face. She wore a long dress, silk, in the colour of old peaches and a cut that had gone out of fashion five years before. Charming briefly closed his eyes and cursed his father. He was the only son and heir to the Kingdom, his mother dying before she was able to provide the traditional ‘spare’ that every royal family required, leaving it to Charming to wed and bed one of these dusty, dour, diminutive women, each one angling to be shot one of his famous smiles or find themselves caught in his gaze. Leaving it to him to ensure the Institution of his birth continued marching towards a glorious future. He was reminded of the trolls who held the Myrial Mountains far to the north, lumbering mindlessly forward, thoughtless slaves to their instincts and nothing more.
The peach dress tilted her head, a frown adding lines to her forehead that her thick make-up couldn’t hide. She must have spoken and was now wondering why he hadn’t replied. Charming’s jaw tensed, his teeth biting against each other. A muscle jumped in his cheek, warning him. If he blew his cover, he would have to answer to his father. With the deft skill of many years practice, Charming relaxed his jaw and pulled his lips into a lazy smile.
“Forgive me,” he said, pitching his voice to apologetic. “I was distracted—your dress is remarkable.”
The peach dress blushed, her eyes widening in delight. As she opened her mouth to respond, the trumpeter sounded an announcement, followed by the arrival of a young woman at the top of the stairs. Charming glanced at the clock before returning his gaze to the woman. She was absurdly late, though he couldn’t deny the tactical advantage such an entrance afforded her as all eyes in the room watched her descend the staircase, her pale blue dress sparkling like the stars themselves as the light from the chandelier caught her movements, small and graceful as they were.
Against his better judgement and his self-imposed training, Charming found himself abandoning the peach dress and walking past the queue of waiting potentials, drawn inexorably towards the newcomer.
The Bluebell Woods, 51.0651° N; 0.0313° W, 00:11
Squeaks held the reins even as his nose lengthened and his arms grew shorter, hairier, his grip on them loosening in his increasingly maladapted hands. The young blood next to him was on the way out, his breath ragged as his chest contracted, his bones shortening within him.
The coach was failing, the tightly woven magic the Purple Lady had infused it with unable to bear the strain, each node and cell of the coach’s design battling against the camouflage she had devised. The package, hidden within its walls, was crying.
Squeaks ignored the sound, ignored the burning acid in his stomach as his organs shrank, ignored the desperate screeches from the mouse next to him. He would complete the mission, and then he would give the Purple Lady a sharp bite to her ankle.
The Woodcutter’s Cottage, 51.0492° N; 0.0303° W, 15:13
Charming closed in on his target, the glass shoe held tight in his grip, the anger he had felt moments earlier draining from his shoulders. He had located her despite his father’s and the Royal Court’s attempts to thwart him. The woman spotted the lost slipper and held out her foot as if she had been privy to his plans all along, a spy like himself.
It fit her perfectly.
Houses don’t view time the same way people do.
Neither do flats, apartments, bungalows, condos, huts or wigwams, but Rose Reach is a house. She is a very old house, with many original features: fireplaces, ceiling roses, even the old gas pipes in the walls for oil lamps.
She is at times a very fine house, with white walls and black beams that crisscrossed her face like corset lace, but at other times her white walls are splattered with showery spots of black damp, residence psoriasis, spreading across her once-perfect cladding.
Rose Reach is aware of these different times because time for her is a series of rooms, categorised and separate but easy enough to travel between.
This is one of the benefits of being a house.
Rose Reach is currently watching herself being demolished, and she supposes, as her kitchen caves in, that she probably won’t be able to travel between her rooms anymore. She wonders if she’ll remember herself as a house when she is separated into piles of brick and plywood and shattered glass, but then she doesn’t remember herself as stone and sand and mulch, so she decides probably not.
She isn’t upset by this. Emotions for houses are duller, muted things, experienced slowly. Houses are cautious with their feelings, even as regards themselves.
It doesn’t surprise her that they chose to begin in the kitchen. The centre of the house, that’s what they say. That’s what they used to say. Before he came through Rose Reach’s front door.
She pulls away from the kitchen. She doesn’t care for it. She never did. It was an ugly room, not to her tastes. The ceiling was lower than any of her other rooms, and it made her feel clunky. Time here moves thickly. She rolls herself forward, away from the kitchen.
She has three bedrooms upstairs, one a box room.
Too small to be a bedroom, but it suited the baby.
Someone’s banging on the door. Rose Reach pulls away from the box room, curious. The builders are all here, pulling her to pieces, enacting the revenge they’d been hired to do. Out by the porch, a neighbour is complaining about the noise.
Rose Reach thinks about shaking her curtains at the woman but lets the impulse go, and the woman stomps away, happy she’s said her piece. The porch is both empty and full, and is soon to be forgotten.
Rose Reach wishes she had done something differently, caused the door to jam or made the air too cold for him to stay. If she had, there wouldn’t be so much pain.
Houses feel regret. In this way, they are similar to people.
Jack pushed open the door and swore when it hit loudly against the skirts, and then swore again for swearing. He wasn’t used to being quiet. He was a big man, built for big spaces. He should have been American or Australian or Russian, but he wasn’t.
He had thought about joining the army when he was younger when it had become clear he was going to be a big man. But his eyes let him down. He wore glasses as thick as his fingers. On a normal-sized person they would have been an invitation to bullying, but on Jack they just served to separate him further from the world. With his big hands and big feet and deep voice and thick lenses, he was comical to look at, and that’s all most people did - look at him.
But Zoe had spoken to him.
He’d helped her move into halls. She dropped her plant and spilt dry earth everywhere, and no one had helped except Jack. They’d got talking, and Zoe had seen something behind his thick glasses and mountainous body, and four years later they’d married. Two years after that they’d bought a flat, and then they’d bought Rose Reach, and now they had little Susie.
Now Jack stood, frozen in the door, anxiously staring through his fishbowl eyes at the baby, waiting for her to wake, to start crying. Susie bubbled spit between her little pink lips, smiled drowsily, and went back to sleep.
“See?” Zoe said, “She’s her father’s daughter. Sleep through anything.”
Jack reached out and placed his hand against Zoe’s cheek. “She’s her mother’s daughter - the only other girl in the world who puts up with me.”
The plumber at the porch was a friend of Jack’s. He walked in and introduced himself to Zoe and Susie. Susie was home from school. It was summer, and the windows were always open. They sat together in the kitchen, and Rose Reach was embarrassed because the plumber had to lower his head.
“The last people built this as an extension. I think they must have been about four foot tall,” Zoe apologised, fixing the man a cup of tea.
“S’alright”, he said, smiling.
“Thank you for offering to help. With Jack away so often…”
“S’alright,” he said again. “It’s good experience for me. And I know Jack doesn’t like you two here on your own. He asked me to pop by. So it’s no trouble. S’alright.”
Susie looked up from her drawing and smiled at him.
Rose Reach has a vase of flowers in her living-room window. Even today, the day they kill her, fresh flowers in her window.
Flowers for thanks. Flowers for a funeral.
The flowers on the upper landing were dying.
Jack looked at them, surprised. He stood, wondering if perhaps he had uncovered a secret, a child finding out Santa Claus isn’t real, and just for a moment is included, grown-up. No longer a strange giant, watching the normal world go by.
And then, riding on the back of his strange elation, Jack felt a moment of loss when it occurred to him that his wife didn’t keep the flowers alive when he wasn’t there. He told himself it meant something, that she put them there for him only when she knew he would be home. It was a sign of affection.
A petal drifted down from the praying head of the tulip, taking with it an ideal of his wife.
One floor down, Jack’s friend worked on, unnoticed, plumbing, plumbing, plumbing away.
Houses don’t keep secrets, and Rose Reach knew already what Jack didn’t, though she didn’t understand the significance of it in the way that Jack would come to.
The kitchen stands in piles in the garden, waiting to be moved to the skip. The builders are drinking tea, and the radio chatters away in the background, talking about sports and politics and television.
These things are important. Noises fill a house, and Rose Reach has missed them. She stares down through her bricks and window panes at the bones of herself. All houses die. All people die. Builders and shovels and mixing machines kill houses. Fire too, and flood.
Gas only kills people.
“So can you fix it?” Zoe asked, hips against the counter, an apple uneaten in her hand.
“When’s Jack back?” asked Jack’s friend.
“Two, three weeks.” Zoe scratched the skin of her apple, leaving a white scar.
Jack’s friend shrugged. “I can. But it’ll take a few days. Do you mind?”
Zoe looked up from her apple. “No. No. It’s nice to have someone here.”
“S’alright,” Jack’s friend smiles. “Glad to be here.”
Houses are homes when they’re full, that’s what people believe. But houses are always full.
Rose Reach is full now, even as they empty her. Rose Reach is a very special house and will be full long after she no longer stands, long after her land has been sold and a new building stands on her bones.
Houses are full of memories. Houses are full of potential. Houses are full of ghosts.
Susie, eight years old, sat on the stairs, listening to her parents argue. She wishes she hadn’t told him. Her regret sits inside her, slothful and heavy. She’d never felt anything like it before, and somewhere in her mind, the feeling takes hold. Takes root inside her. It will haunt her for years to come.
In the future, boyfriends and husbands will tell her she did nothing wrong, and she’ll let them think that they’ve helped her.
Rose Reach can’t read minds, but houses can read emotions. Houses, like little Susie, absorb feelings and hold onto them, taking them into their insulation and mortar, releasing them slowly and painfully.
Jack was shouting, crying. Zoe was crying, shouting. Everyone was crying, shouting. Shouting, crying. Everyone felt so guilty. So apologetic. So angry.
The living room was silent, the kitchen too. The whole house had been silent for weeks, and then one night noise filled Rose Reach again.
Zoe stepped forward, tightening the rope of her dressing gown. She stands next to her husband, looking at the plumber flat on his back on her kitchen table. He is a frightful sight, his body pulped like wet paper.
Pulped by Jack the gentle giant, her Jack.
“You shouldn’t have brought him here,” she said.
Jack turned to his wife. “No.”
“He hurt her,” Zoe said.
Zoe reaches out and takes her husband's bloody hand. “Leave him here. We’ll call the police in the morning.”
Houses are homes when they are full. When they make you feel safe. Houses want to be homes. In this way, Rose Reach was no different from any house, from any person.
Rose Reach steps back into the living room. Her pipes shudder. She is an old house. When she’d filled the kitchen with gas she hadn’t realised how quickly her veins would empty. She hadn’t realised how little it would take.
The plumber gasped and kicked and then, finally, stopped.
The next day, the police came and went and came again. No one was charged. The law doesn’t stretch to arresting and imprisoning houses.
Rose Reach watches as Jack, Zoe and Susie stand by the front gate. Jack picks his little girl up, hugging her tightly.
“I’ll miss this place,” Susie says, not quite convincingly.
“You like the new place?” Zoe asked.
Jack dropped a kiss onto her cheek. “Good riddance. This house never felt right.”
Rose Reach watches her little family walk away. Houses don’t feel things the way people do. They are careful, guarded. Jack’s words didn’t hurt her any more than the builders pulling down her walls.
She turns back into herself, reliving all the families that had sheltered within her. Reliving the moment she killed the plumber.
Rose Reach is content to be knocked down.