Narrated by Bob Eccles
Christiana slept well and woke later than she had intended. It was 3:03 AM as she slipped out of her sleep-tube and hit the ground. She made a mental check, looking herself over. She imagined she looked good though there was no real way to tell. It had been years since she had seen her face. She felt good; nothing like two hours of solid shut-eye. It was an indulgence and it would eat into her sleep quota later in the week, but it had been worth it.
She stretched. Oops. She hadn’t meant to use one of her Non-DO-Motion Credits so early in the day. She hoped the counter had not registered it, but looking down at the digital readout screen clamped to the waist of her work jumper, she saw the numeral 1 flashing and knew that the Penalty had already been relayed to HOME.
What a day she was having. She was really cutting loose; first she’d overslept by three minutes, and now a Motion Credit first thing out of the tube.
She turned back, reached for her Mindport, and felt a sharp twinge in her head. Without thinking, she clamped a hand over her left eye. Damn. The counter flashed a 2. She had done years of sleep-assimilation pain-avoidance training but still hadn’t mastered it.
To her left, she heard the whoosh of a sleep-tube discharging, and Gunnar hit the floor, blinking his eyes slowly. She saw him fairly regularly during Pre-DO and Post-DO, in the vague limbo before the physical recharge cycle. He was handsome, or at least she thought he might be; she couldn’t seem to keep his face in her memory. He side-glanced her and saw the blood running down her face.
“Aneurysm still?” he asked.
“Micro. Repairs tonight.”
Gunnar tried to keep an even expression at the mention of Repairs. He didn’t say anything else. It was important to conserve words. If they weren’t careful, they’d use all their Word-Credits during Pre-DO. When this happened, the moments before entering their sleep-tubes were composed of only ambiguous blank stares. Body language of any sort, even facial expressions, was counted. Exceeding the allotted Word-Credits would start racking up Survive-Source penalties. Nobody wanted that.
Christiana was still amazed that she ever got to see Gunnar. They didn’t DO in the same department. She occasionally saw other workers in the course of the day, but a personal sleep-tube sighting was really something. It was an amazing fluke. If HOME’s systems were running optimally, none of the millions of workers in Corridor G-233 would ever be closer to one another than a football field. Luckily, there were still some bugs.
Christiana looked at Gunnar sideways, trying to take in his features.
“Oversleep?” she asked, kicking herself for using her final Word Credit on something so dull. She perpetually hoped she would think of something good to say to him, but the pressure of the time constraints and the fear of Penalties conspired to make her look like a jerk. “Departure,” he said, plugging in his Mindport, and hopped on the Z. He had wisely reserved one word credit for Post-DO. He waved once, and was gone. Christiana was touched; it was a very nice gesture on his part. She did not wave back, but it was okay; he would understand. She tried to think of some way to thank him for the kindness when next they met, but it evaded her. It was so tiresome trying to think of anything in the painfully slow speed of Non-DO-Time.
Damn it. Seeing Gunnar had distracted her and she had already been out of the tube for 6.3 seconds. She would have to hurry if she wanted to avoid a time penalty. She snatched her Mindport from the holder in the tube and hopped on the Z. She flipped on the Mindport and by the time she was at her octagonal cell, she had assimilated the particulars of the two hundred thousand DO-Units that waited at her console. At first it overwhelmed her, but when she thought of uploading the full power of HOME she was comforted and confident in her ability. Only the nosebleeds troubled her.
With a billion gigs per second pumping through her Mindport, Christiana was invincible. Her stamina was still good and in the past she had been awarded Bonus-Credits for efficiency. In the waning twilight of her youth, she had even had days when Survive-Source exceeded her desire, days when a few well-timed itches or stretches had been well within her budget. She had not had an efficient DO since the nosebleeds began, but that would soon be a thing of the past; tonight, Repairs, and then she’d be as good as new.
Christiana was not using her eyes; the images flooded directly into her mind. She perceived the images as swarms, and it was her job to arrange them into clusters and then to group the clusters into interlocking octagons while keeping uniform patterning. The discs could then be stacked and moved on as finished product.
The process was a function of complex algorithms, but for Christiana it was sheer perceptual bliss. She loved the way the swarms swooped up and around her head and then tumbled down in spirals that reminded her of the sleep-tube, so elegant in their geometric concentricity. It was a high level function and Christiana was gifted at it. It was because of this that she enjoyed the privilege of a private sleep-tube.
She was running smoothly, and in short time had made her way through eighty thousand units. If she could stay ahead of pace, she might even be able to nab a Bonus that she could convert to a Word-Credit to share with Gunnar during Post-DO. And then it hit her.
The pain was the same as before, a sharp burning behind her eye. She managed to stop herself from raising her hand, but the swarms in her visual field disintegrated, falling to the bottommost depth of the plain. She focused her mind away from the discomfort and waited for it to pass, all the time aware that precious seconds were slipping away. She felt warm liquid in her nose as a torrent of blood poured down the front of her jumper. There was a smell of something burning. When the pain had passed, she reassembled the swarms. But there was nothing for it; she would incur DO-Penalties no matter how fast she worked. She only hoped that she would not fare too badly when it came time for Survive-Source.
When she had finished half of the DO-Units, a buzzer went off and the HOME upload went on standby. She leaned back in the console shelf and opened her mouth to receive Survive-Source. With the upload on hold, she could use her eyes again. She saw the dispenser coming toward her. A small tube hung above her open mouth. She waited, her salivary glands flowing freely; the nosebleeds had definitely pumped up her appetite. And then nothing happened. The dispenser moved away from her and retracted into a wall panel.
The HOME upload started once more. Christiana saw the dreaded words in her visual field, floating in front of the mounting swarms: DO-Penalties / Totals Penalties Exceed. There was nothing to be done; falling behind in DO was a more penalized failure than any other. She would have to go without food and water for the day. She only hoped that she could keep away another nosebleed. If she fell further behind in the seven-day cycle, she didn’t know when she might eat. She considered cutting back on sleep to make up for the setback, but that seemed to precipitate more nosebleeds. She didn’t know what to do and she didn’t have any more energy with which to consider it; the swarms spiraled above her, threatening to collapse.
By the time she had uploaded the next day’s pre-program and gotten off the Z, she was exhausted. Her jumper was stiff with blood. She put it out of her mind. It would be a month before Re-Supply. She heard a Z-pod come to a halt and Gunnar got out. She did not dare turn her head; she could not afford it. Her tired mind could not conjure up a picture of his face. As she slipped into the sleep-tube, she heard Gunnar make use of his remaining Word-Credit.
“Luck,” he said. He was, of course, referring to the Repairs that would commence shortly.
There had been a time in Christiana’s youth when Repairs had not been nearly as painful as they had now become. HOME had realized that resources could be conserved by withholding painkillers during Repairs. Experience had proven that the subject would survive the procedure regardless of the degree of pain.
In the sleep-tube, Christiana waited for the procedure to begin. The assimilation programming was warming up and she moved her mind to the repetitious stimuli that were intended to correct unproductive behavior patterns. As the program began, she heard a breathy voice in the far recesses of the static, repeating a word in an endless loop.
Door . . . Door . . . Door . . .
It must just be pre-op jitters, Christiana thought. The voice was not there. She pushed her mind away from the voice, moved it towards sleep, and the voice stopped.
She knew that she should sleep before the Repairs were underway. If she was asleep when it started, she might not wake up until the preliminary incisions had been made. It was important not to make any movements during the procedure to ensure successful completion and avoid racking up Motion-Penalties. But try as she might, she could not sleep. Then she heard the buzzing of the machinery and the whirr of the blades. It was all she could do not to scream as the top of her cranium came off.
Christiana woke at 3:00 sharp and slid out of her tube. She felt great. There was some itchiness around her hairline, but that was all. Hell, the way she was feeling, she stood a good chance of making Bonus at DO. If all went well, she might even be able to take a few selective swipes at the itchiness. Life was sweet. Looking back, she couldn’t understand why she had felt so bad.
She barely registered Gunnar’s presence as she hopped the Z. He said something to her that she only caught in passing. It was one word, dropped from his mouth to graze her ear as she sped on towards her cell. It sounded like voice.
At the console, Christiana was unstoppable. The swarms seemed to obey her thoughts before she had sprung them. They moved through space majestically, interlocking and stacking with ease. Christiana was starving and Survive-Source was well within reach. She was on pace to undo yesterday’s damage and hit Bonus with no problem.
And then it happened; the searing pain. The intensity so surprised her that both hands flew up to her face and she screamed, twice. In the process, she disconnected her Mindport. She was in trouble. Her digital readout screen flashed repeatedly, counting the Penalties. Blood was flowing freely down her jumper and onto the console shelf. But that was not the worst of it; it would take her thirty seconds to hook back up and restart the upload. She could forget about eating for the rest of the week. As she scrambled to get back on task, she realized that Repairs would have to be done again tonight.
She shuddered. The digital readout flashed again.
Christiana got off the Z and made straight for her tube. Gunnar was just getting off the Z, as well. He took in her appearance peripherally.
“Door,” he said, and pointed his finger into the distance of the corridor.
Some part of Christiana’s mind registered the enormity of this gesture. The system tallied word/motion combinations differently than discreet actions. That Gunnar would choose to make use of a combination to communicate with her was breathtaking in its generosity. She yearned to reach out and embrace him, indeed, to see him for the first time. She tried to imagine what contact might feel like. But she had to put that aside to prepare for Repairs. As she lay there anticipating, a single word echoed in her mind.
When Christiana awoke two hours later, the itch was almost unbearable. She felt like hell. She had not consumed food or water in two and a half days. A small trickle of blood was running from her nose to her mouth. She reached for her Mindport and it fell from her. She bent down to retrieve it, her digital readout flashing like crazy, the penalties tallying.
Gunnar’s tube opened.
“Tonight,” he said. He reached out and touched her hand. Chills coursed through Christiana’s body. She thought to say something but decided against it. She could not afford the Credit. She was still clutching to the hope that she might pull it together and receive Survive-Source. She hopped the Z and was gone.
It was much worse than the day before. She had only completed nine-hundred DO-units when the pain began. She expected an eruption of blood, but all that came was the slow and clumpy trickle. Then darkness.
When she woke, it was to the panicked realization that she had been unconscious for nearly twenty hours.
She had lost a lifetime.
Christiana got off the Z. Her mind was heavy with sober reflection. It was all that was left to her. She could never recuperate what had been lost.
Death was one of the things that she had been conditioned to push aside, and she had never considered it a possibility. She stood by her tube and wept. It did not matter anymore. She could stand here and do this until she could no longer stand. Then she would enter the tube and the Repairs cycle would terminate her body.
She realized that Gunnar was standing next to her.
“It’s time to go,” he said.
“Where am I going?” Christiana asked. She was shocked to hear herself speak so many words at once. It sounded strange, like a repetition of uploads.
“You don’t have to die, Christiana.”
“This is how we live,” Christiana said. “This is how people have always lived.”
“It’s not,” he said.
“I don’t understand.”
“HOME is our decision. You should leave.”
“Where would I go? These corridors are endless and there is no food.”
“Go to the door and walk through it.” Gunnar pointed down the corridor as he had done in a distant past. Christiana struggled to remember when it had been.
“What will you do when I am gone?” she asked. “The penalties for this conversation will be too great. You won’t survive this.”
“I won’t need to for long,” he said. “You can come back for me.”
“I will walk through the door and later I will come back,” she said.
She turned, and for the first time looked at his face directly. He was a short man, with short limbs, and he was losing his hair. He exceeded her wildest dreams. “I won’t forget you,” she said, and walked down the corridor. It took her a very long time to reach the door. It did not resist her; she pushed through the door and stepped out.
She looked out across the grass and the hills and in the distance the trees grew on the mountainside. She fell to her knees and drank from a stream. She ate berries and fruits from the trees. She slept, as if in a deep trance, as she never had before. She told herself that she would go back for Gunnar and the others as soon as she was able.
Time passed and she grew fond of the idyllic stream and the fruits. She swam in the water and shed her clothes. She fashioned a spear out of a stick and killed a bear and wrapped herself in its fur. In the evenings she would sit below the boughs of a tree and observe a beehive. The motion of the swarming bees fascinated her as they busied themselves with the making of honey. She did not know why she loved to watch them, nor could she make sense of their spiraling flight.
Her mind was clouded by the present. She loved this world. Her memory of the previous life was fading. Killing the bear had been exciting. Still, she was sure that she could devise an easier method. She began working with vines, tossing them over trees, tying them to heavy logs. She sharpened the end of the logs to increase the damage they might cause. She was happy with her creation. The trap would allow her to spend less time hunting. Now she could devote herself to understanding the bee swarms.
Soon, the man she had once known was a distant memory, a voice that sometimes came to her when lightning struck near the place where she slept. For a while, his voice called from behind her. In time, the voice was in front of her, and she ran forward, blindly, to catch up.
BIO: Nicomedes Austin Suarez is an author spending time in the Third World. He lives with his peach of a wife, Erica, and their magical infant son, Bjorn.