I wrote this short piece for a potential sci-fi e-mag submission. I received the common rejection rhetoric but I have faith you’ll enjoy it.
The room was lit by the dullest of yellows. The windows were turned black, hiding the adjacent stacked towers that would’ve blotted out the skyline. The light flickered at a consistently irregular pace, the auto-ambience unit’s attempt to anti-artificial itself. It also played a melodic instrument ensemble supported by a sultry smooth singer; recreating the feel of an old fashioned cigar lounge.
The unit was to Fred’s specifications; the room, the state’s. Martha wasn’t keen on either. Fred was ensconced in his faux-leather recliner and his toes, propped upon the pop-up piece, tottered along, trailing the tune. The furniture was a shade of darkened walnut but not in a way that reminded people of wood, or the outdoors. Whilst Fred was at ease, Martha, in her matching seat, lent heavily forward with her eyebrows drawn together, her recliner un-reclined. Despite her fatigue and aching body, her knees jostled up and down like the frenetic kickings of an uprooted tortoise. Her mind whirred round and round, a dog running revolutions in its wheel; the momentum of which eventually clambered up and over her mental precipice, then free-fell from her lips.
‘I’m not going back to work.’
Fred absorbed another puff, his attention loosely tethered to the evaporating smoke spirals. One eye managed to swivel sideways, and found itself locked onto and outnumbered by two of Martha’s. Their intensity pressuring his brain to formulate a response.
‘Yes, that’s sensible. I think you can do better.’
‘No,’ Martha said, barely above a whisper, ‘I don’t want a new job. I want to stay home.’
Fred spluttered, sucking smoke inadvertently into his lungs. She felt a sudden desire to go to his side, to pat his back, even though any change in vitals would be picked up immediately by Lux. She’d once thought those feelings had been mastered, pushed down and out, but the birthing of Ellie had caused a hiccup of the hippocampus. The state mantra rose in automatic response, to combat her urge: ‘Emotion is animalistic, chaotic, destructive; intellect is humane, structured, supportive.’
The mantra continued to chatter incessantly, incoherently blurring together as her mind flew back to another time and place.
‘Papa,’ she cried, her wispy arms wavering, mirroring how the nearby violet crocuses leant toward the fading sun. The man smiled and let his cane fall upon the verdant growth as he swept her up into an embrace.
‘What’s the matter, my little pumpkin?’
A tear soaked into the matted gray mass that cascaded from his chin. His body swayed and creaked as he took her weight into one arm, so that the other was free to gently pat her back.
‘It’s okay, Papa’s here.’
She gave him a soggy smile, her eyes sparkling in the sunlight, and he squeezed her tight. She felt safe.
‘Dad, put her down.’
The spell evaporated and Papa spoke soft apologies as he placed her back upon the ground.
‘It’s okay, son, she’s no heavier than a potato, I can manage.’ The joke was for her benefit, as was the ghost of a smile.
‘You know fine well why you shouldn’t be picking her up, and it has got nothing to do with your bad leg.’ Father’s footsteps came to a stop beyond arm’s reach and she gazed longfully up at him. He resembled Papa in many ways, merely unweathered and unwarmed. A block of hardened stone, polished but never carved.
‘No harm done, lad, no one saw.’
‘Why do you insist on playing the fool? You know she’s failing in school, if you keep encouraging this sentimental nonsense she’ll never be normal.’
‘Normal,’ Papa exhaled slowly, his breath falling with the wind. He reached down to retrieve his cane but upon straightening seemed shrunken, shrivelled. She remembered thinking that if it wasn’t for his stick, rooting him to the world, he’d be swept away like a deflated balloon.
‘Stay home? And do what?’ Fred was finally able to say. His pipe gave a small click and his fingers fiddled clumsily with the cartridge release.
‘I’d like to try raising Ellie myself.’
Fred’s eyes widened as his digits danced quicker. Once the empty cartridge came clear he rummaged in his pockets for another one. Of late, he was always puffing. After his hands had repeatedly delved into the depths of his pockets, to no avail, he called out.
‘Lux, I need a new cartridge.’
Martha rose quickly and walked over to the side table. On top was a beautifully ornate display box, opaque glass inlaid with fine gold filament, a sigil of the state. She lifted the lid to reveal his collection of scents. They stood stacked in neat rows; sanctioned intellectual stimulants; medically approved hormone balancers; all manner of excitors and relaxants, or ‘fuzzies’ and ‘buzzies’ as Fred called them. She knew which one he’d be looking for; No.13, aroma of chamomile, laced with morphine. There was a muffled whirring of servos and bearings as Lux wheeled through from the other room, where she’d been tending to Ellie.
‘Madam, please, allow me,’ came the perfect purr of a 1950’s Hollywood movie star. Martha’s voice had a similar accent, albeit less refined, picked up from the Lux that had overseen her own education. The default voice setting of the world. She grasped onto a vague recollection that her grandmother’s voice had been wholly different, but how exactly she wasn’t sure. Lux’s arms reached seamlessly toward the box.
‘That’s okay, Lux, I have it already.’
‘Why don’t you let me, dear, you should sit down and relax.’
At the firing of a subconscious trigger, Martha began to pass it over but then froze in an act of rebellion. She didn’t want to relax.
Fred sat silently, a slight twitch of a smile threatening to emerge as he watched his wife. He loved her for her quirks, the way she sometimes mirrored the duties of the Lux, feeling the need to participate in some small way to the domestic duties. But he couldn’t shake her words, and the feeling that this was different, dangerous. His bemusement began to be displaced by a burrowing itch within his bones, that bit back against the numbness of the No. 13 he’d burned. An internal clamminess crawled outward from his sub-dermal layer, spilling over onto his skin. He grabbed the cartridge from his wife’s hand, not noticing as his fingernail grazed her.
‘Ow, damn it, Fred!’ she pulled her hand to her mouth. Lux glided forward.
‘Sorry, Lux, it just caught me by surprise.’
‘I understand, dear, let me see.’
Martha placed herself into Lux’s care, marvelling at how the silicon composite covering Lux’s appendages seemed softer and more lifelike than her own. Perfect, in so many ways. She almost faltered in her determination but although filled with self-doubt she was fuelled by something deeper. Another of Lux’s appendages lay itself atop Martha’s graze and emitted a small whoosh, a cool breeze that soothed the scratch.
‘Thank you, Lux.’
‘You are most welcome, dear. Be wary; remember, intellect not emotion.’
‘I see your vitals are spiking; are you still in pain?’
Martha stared at her finger, willing it to stop betraying her.
‘Not the finger, dear. There is excessive blood flow to your breasts; we should look to pump soon.’ Lux continued.
‘No, thank you, not just now.’
‘As you wish, dear.’
‘Actually, Lux, I was thinking perhaps I would feed Ellie tonight.’
Lux’s appendages overlapped each other in pairs at her front and her microprocessors hummed as she considered Martha’s words.
‘Let’s stick to the state guidelines, dear, it is for the best.’
‘Yes, but…’ Martha began, but Lux pivoted on the spot and rolled back out the way she’d come; leaving them alone once more.
The singer’s perfect, Lux-like, voice began to grate on Martha. At a sharp command it ceased, but then she realised she couldn’t stand the silence either.
‘Fred, did you hear what I said? Don’t you have anything to say?’
But Fred was still struggling with his pipe.
Her hands ached from clutching the arms of the chair. Martha took a deep breath, letting the words flow through her, ‘emotion is animalistic, chaotic, destructive; intellect is humane, structured, supportive.’ She breathed again. Again. An aroma of chamomile churned into the air. After another long breath Martha repeated her question, finally getting a reply.
‘Martha, my love, I don’t think it’s a good idea.’
She’d expected his response but the weight of his words still slammed into her stomach and she sagged down onto her chair.
‘I researched it, there’s precedent you know. I’ve even registered interest in a local support group.’
Fred eyes rolled twice, once for the drugs and once at her words.
‘Those traditionalist groups are ridiculous, it’s been proven over and over that service units offer the best education and care. Besides, if you stop working then we won’t be able to meet our labour quota.’
Martha had researched that too.
‘If I stay home then we won’t need the extra gyro,’ she paused, carefully waiting for him to exhale before breaking the worst of her revelation. ‘And, if we give up Lux, then we can apply for a reduced quota.’
Fred’s mind perked up, shocked into surfing the crest of the morphine’s wave. He tossed his pipe down on the table only to stare at it for a moment then reach for it once more.
‘Martha, I know that it seems trendy to be going back to outdated traditions, but do you really expect you’ll be able to manage without Lux. Think about what’s best for Ellie.’
Martha stared up at the ceiling, tracing the almost imperceptible lines in the white plaster. What about what’s best for me?
Fred’s face shook left to right, examining the room as if seeing it for the first time.
‘What happened to the music?’
‘I’ve done a lot of research, I’d really appreciate if you’d take a look before dismissing the idea.’
‘Lux,’ Fred said, ‘turn the music back on.’ Lux complied.
‘Fred?’ Martha said, her hands once more clenching against the soft fabric.
‘Honestly, Martha, what is there to research. The state guidelines are in place for a reason. Remember that News article last week, the one in the ‘State of Affairs’?’
‘Yes, but that entire paper is backed by the same people who control the guidelines.’
‘Well, of course it is. Those smart enough to run the state are those who know what’s real News. Anyway,’ Fred said, pausing to put his pipe to his lips, ‘the article addressed exactly this thing. The inspectors found that, of children raised without a Lux unit, only 9% were able to pass the school entrance exam. 9%, Martha. They estimate that there are still 40.6 million children that aren’t being given their basic right to a Lux unit. And, these unfortunate children, then have to go through several years of additional prep-schooling. Can you even imagine, Martha, 90% of 40 million’ As he finished talking, Fred panted through his pipe several times in quick succession as if gasping for air.
‘91%’ Martha corrected.
‘I know, that’s exactly what I’m saying.’
‘But what if the problem isn’t the children but our schooling system?’
He didn’t answer. The wave broke and Fred tumbled back into the depths, barely able to reach the surface to draw breath.
‘You are too reliant on that thing, give it here.’ She sat up, reaching her palm out but he clenched to it as if it were a lifeline.
‘Lux,’ she said, seeking support. ‘I think Fred has become addicted to his pipe, can you please speak to him. Perhaps look at phasing out his supply with something milder.’
This time Lux’s voice came through the auto-ambience unit, momentarily halting the melody.
‘I understand your concern, sweetheart, but his vitals are healthy and the importance of mental health remediation shouldn’t be overlooked.’
Martha’s hand was still outstretched toward Fred’s face and she felt a desire to snatch the pipe.
Emotion is animalistic…
‘Martha, dear, are you crying?’
‘No, Lux, it’s just the smoke, it’s irritating my eyes.’
‘I’m reading analogous signals.’
‘I’m fine,’ Martha replied. Lux went silent.
Fred’s fingers followed his mind, allowing the pipe to fall upon his lap. Martha, picked it up, pulling it close to her chest.
Fred drifted along, occasionally mumbling the lyrics to a song that had played a few minutes earlier. The smoke gradually cleared. Eventually, the conversation flooded back to him along with his senses.
‘Martha, why don’t we visit the cabin? I know you love it there.’
‘Can we go for real?’
Fred hesitated, he didn’t understand the point of going ‘for real’ but knew that saying so would risk upsetting her. Into the void of sound, Martha released a near silent sigh. She could already picture the cabin clearly, everytime she closed her eyes, and didn’t need to use the suit and goggles.
‘Lux, do we have any rebate days to claim?’ Fred asked.
‘I’m sorry, dear, but you won’t receive your next rebate day until you have accumulated another 56 hours. After which you’ll need to give three weeks’ notice to claim. Would you like me to make the necessary arrangements?’
Fred looked to Martha, shrugging as if to say he’d tried his best. For her part, Martha stared at the ceiling.
‘Yes, thank you, Lux. Oh, and when you get the cabin prepped could you see about getting some real bread and cheese.’
‘I will do what I can, dear.’
Fred tried to give his wife a smile but she wouldn’t meet his gaze. He felt a strange urge to touch her, to hold her in his arms. He reached slowly toward her.
‘Sweetheart, could you pass me my pipe, please?’
She moved her hand just enough to let him take it. He drew a few puffs and sank deeper into his chair.