In a mechanized society, the boundaries between life, death, and entertainment blur.
|Susan Canlyn leaned into the wheel, staring out the windshield with glass eyes. She knew they were all hungry and watching, and she was focused on only one thing as she drove down Transportation Tract AB-08, toward home: dignity. She never tailgated, always yielded, and slammed the breaks with religious fervor when the L.E.D. started flashing yellow. A Mechanical in a small sedan looked into her car as he passed. He bore the same expression, lips pulled taut, a nervous circuit-break above the right eye. He bowed his head to her, and she nodded back. He gently accelerated and switched lanes to an exit ramp. A nice enough fellow, although he looked pretty much the same as all of the others. She wondered if he would be in an Episode someday.
The old face of the highway was one of anger and confusion, of children playing License-Plate Bingo, but things were different now. It was unthinkable to drive around, frustrated, without a precise knowledge of your destination; any sign of emotion might change your ratings. She combed a hand through her frizzy blonde hair, and wondered what all those people were thinking. The mirrored plate glass that lined the highways was a relatively new installment, and made driving almost unbearable. All sorts of shops lined the outer edges of the road: McDonald's and Olive Garden, book stores, a Radio-Shack (Record your favorite show! Hi-Tech Cams Here!). Even Comfort Inns and Motel 6s had been relocated to the roadside. Every day that she returned from her job at the Mechanical Relations Office, she promised she would never watch the crashes again.
It was nearly six o'clock when she reached her house on Harper Lane, and she pulled into the driveway, exhausted. Being on AB-08 was like having someone hold a cattle prod into the back of your neck for a few hours.
“Susie! Glad to see you made it home!”
A beautiful construct yelled to her from the squat suburban home opposite of hers. Susan's brittle nerves shot a weak signal to her brain, and she managed to half-wave to her with the conviction of a highway squirrel pizza on her way to the front door. Undoubtedly, the Mechanicals of the neighborhood thought she was more robotic than they were, and she could not care less. Humans had been losing the war for the suburbs for decades, and the only important thing was that they hold their ground; all other interactions and friendships were simply politic. She sometimes wondered how she qualified for her job, which dealt primarily with abused Mechanicals, and the psychological repairing of their microchip minds.
People, as a rule, sold to other people, or handed down property through generations. The simple house, with its no-nonsense brown paint and stone steps, was the last bastion of the Canlyn family, and they were latched to it, lampreys of the upper-middle class. It looked ugly and brutish from some angles, but she loved the interior. At least she had until the new television that her husband, Roy, and son, Minghan, had so eagerly waited for was installed. Her father would have been ashamed if he had evaded the senility checks another year. She opened the front door, and a High Definition Mr. Clean loomed over her left shoulder, and bellowed for her to try the new Citrus cleaning spray, now with improved nanotechnology. She dropped her purse and pressed a palm to her forehead. With a look of glazed apathy, she picked up her bag, and continued through the kitchen towards the living room. As she walked, a massive processed beef patty between two preserved sesame buns zoomed out of nowhere and floated by her side. She muffled a laugh and a scream. Advertisements these days often got conflicting reactions like this out of her. She thought: if one of those stupid jingles comes on, I will probably go into cardiac arrest. She reached the living room, and saw her two favorite boys watching a line of scantily clad women in Mechanical costumes walking down a runway.
“What's this?” she teased, and Minghan turned beet red. He panned through the channels with the flick of a wrist while Roy stood up and wrapped his arms around his wife from behind.
“I changed the settings; sorry if the ads in the hallway scared you. They were distracting us” he stammered.
“From more important things?”
Susie relished the occasional awkward moment. They meant that you really did not know everything about somebody, and what fun were families or relationships if there were no surprises or discrepancies left?
The wall of liquid crystal they faced went black, and the telltale sounds of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries filtered into the room. America's favorite pastime was about to begin: The Crashes. Susan felt sick.
“Don't you want to watch, Mom? They say this week’s Episode has a three-car pileup with no survivors, and a motorcycle getting rammed by an eighteen-wheeler!” The look of honest excitement on his face made her wish morbid curiosity was less effective at making money. She always used to watch the show with them, enjoying every shriek of sheered metal; every dancing severed limb. When Tract AB-08 became a featured segment on The Crashes, everything changed. Nobody wanted to risk their own lives on the road, that was just silly, and legions of Mechanicals and humans alike started taking the train into New Denmark. The price of tickets soared to ludicrous heights, and Susan started driving her old Chrysler again. She wondered how they could continue watching the program when she was out driving. Would they watch an Episode if she was featured in a windshield splatter? Maybe that was what it would take to get their attention.
“I think I'll just warm up some leftovers boys. I'm thinking about heading to bed early tonight.”
But they were already absorbed in the televised blood-ecstasy.
Roy surprised her the next morning by placing a first-class train ticket next to her bowl of raisin bran.
“I felt bad about last night. I should've had some hot food waiting for you when you got off work.”
He kissed the back of her neck.
“Where did you get the money for this?”
Tickets cost upwards of three Benjamins, and things had been difficult for the Canlyns in the last few years.
“Minghan has been saving his allowance, and I won a few rounds of Blackjack on the InterLink before you got home last night.”
“But this will only be good for one day. I'll have to drive to work again tomorrow anyways. I almost think you could have found something more lasting to spend your money on.”
“Nothing is more important to me than a guaranteed day of safety for you. I know it’s insensitive to watch when you’re home, and even that I watch it at all is something you know I’m ashamed of. It’s an addiction though, you have to understand.”
She understood. She had been addicted to many retrospectively idiotic things in her life, which can be said for most people. After she finished with her cereal, she gave Roy a quick peck on the cheek, and walked out the door towards the train station. Men carrying large sheets of mirrored glass passed her on the street, and she was once again forced to remember The Crashes. To her, the mirror had become synonymous with death. Any mirror larger than her bathroom medicine-cabinet or a handheld could be hiding drooling faces, waiting for their primetime carnage. Where was that sheet headed? Was the show expanding?
The train was the sensual fusion of mag-lev engines and advanced entertainment. Mechanical stewards took her ticket, and microcomputers logged her personal information before suggesting which television program she would like to watch during the commute to New Denmark. Of course her favorite show came up. She had watched it since the first season, and the television had always been the best salesman. Disgusted, she passed The Crashes-themed viewing booth. Of course it was full: of men, of women, of Mechanicals. Was there actually a time when the Discovery Channel or National Geographic booths were that full? Probably not. She opted for the back of the train, where the Mechanicals used to congregate. After the MRO Act had been passed, Mechanicals were free to enter the First-Class booths, and almost nobody, bolts or blood, used the economy sections anymore, unless it was absolutely necessary from overcrowding. A solitary female Mech sat gazing out the window in the row second from the last. She seemed intent on staring down some important object, but the bullet momentum of the train turned the world into smeared pastel.
“You are trying to look preoccupied. Why? Don’t you know you are permitted by law to acknowledge me?” Susan was disgruntled by the Mech’s apathy toward her presence. In a world where she controlled so little, she took guilty solace in condescension.
“You’ll have to excuse me. I was ‘spacing out’.” Her pupils dilated, and she swiveled to look Susan in the eyes. “I am Reggie, it has been a pleasure to meet you. Now I have a question. Why are you back here, when The Crashes are playing up front? You look like a Suburbanite. You’ve got cash. Why are you slumming?”
Susan was dumbstruck by Reggie’s openness, and by the melancholy that tinged her speech. Something was strange here; she worked every day with Mechs: faulty circuitry, bipolar heat-sinks, rusting copper emotion, but there was always a flat quality to the feelings. But in her voice, there was no radio-static.
“Is it so strange to think that I do not enjoy suffering of the human or Mechanical variety? Some part of me still believes in goodwill.” She felt insulted.
“Then you won’t take a second glance at this.” Reggie thought she had Susan beat. She held out a glossy V.I.P. booth ticket for a live filming of The Crashes (Booth 070307, HW Bloc 19 – Mirror Plate Glass-Panoramic Viewing Field). A little frown creased the ElastiMetal of her mouth. Susan stared in awe. Did the Mech know she held a small fortune in her palm? How did she even obtain such a thing?
“This will buy you a booth for three months. You’ll undoubtedly catch some excitement in that amount of time. Don’t be ashamed, Susan. See this frown on my face? It requires exponentially greater processing power to frown than to smile. In these times, we cannot afford to waste energy. It would be so much easier to take this than to exhaust yourself. You can just sell it; you don’t even have to go see the show. I won’t think any less of you. I will never know either way.” The ticket held the weight of bodies on her fingers.
Before Susan could answer, the Mag-lev lurched to a halt, and an automated message played over the speakers: “Unexpected roadwork, switching lanes. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause. ETA remains at 8:35 a.m.” The Mag-lev hummed dangerously, and slid onto a parallel lane; the transition was almost unnoticeable. Susan grabbed the ticket, stuffing it into her pea coat pocket without a word to Reggie. A few minutes later, the Mag-lev stopped at Marshfield. Susan looked out onto a road nearby and saw several men carving notches into the asphalt edges, and others tearing great chunks from the middle of the road. Several unmarked vans marked the perimeter of the construction zone.
“Susan, I can see you’re wondering what they are doing. Those notches, you know, the ‘don’t-fly-off-the-road-if-you-fall-asleep’ notches, they are studies in irony. People have assumed since they first appeared that they were completely benevolent, that the people who made those notches were deeply concerned with your own well-being, and they have assumed that the lights at a four-way intersection are to control traffic; to prevent suffering. But I bet you’ve stopped at that horribly long light, and wondered, what the Hell is taking it so long? Well, look at it this way, Susan. Somebody watching you probably wanted a beer from the fridge. Commercial break. Those notches? Just protecting the stock. What is more boring for the fans than to see a driver wrapped around a tree if they aren’t even awake to scream before the collision? And those big plates in the road: trap-doors. When you return to your home tonight, go out into the street, and look for the edges of these things. It’s all automated. Almost every Episode is footage of controlled experiments. It’s all about ratings. And look, the show is gaining popularity, the playing field is expanding. America’s favorite cancer. You wouldn’t even believe who has stock running on this program.”
“I can’t believe you. You’re just a Mech, how would you ever have access to information like this? Who are you Reggie? Really, who? Am I to believe these deaths are orchestrated?”
The Mechanical continued to frown, and was silent.
Susan felt sick, and her eyes were feverish in their sockets. She watched the workers dissipate into the landscape as they continued to the last stop on the line, New Denmark.
The two women stood up when the Mag-lev reached the station, and Susan noticed a leg-brace attached to the Mech.
“What’s that for, you going to prison? Is that how you know all this stuff? Some kind of robo-spy, caught in the act?” This Mech is full of surprises.
“I wish I could joke around with you, but no, the reality of my situation is far worse. It’s the Liquidation Facility. And yes. I did a bit of snooping around where I shouldn’t. Curiosity is not strictly reserved for humans, is it?” Her frown continued to distort her metal faceplate; she looked like some sort of bizarre Picasso sculpture now.
“Where is your escort? Looks like you’re unguarded.”
Susan could think of nothing else to say.
Reggie pointed to the strange contraption on her leg. “This computer will send electrical impulses through my CPU, allowing a remote operator to drive me to the front gates, and soon after, into the slag. Technology’s a bitch, huh?”
“And I am inhuman. Although I must say, sometimes I felt elevated above you all.”
The Mech began a series of awkward steps, and Susan followed her off the train. Reggie hooked a sharp left, and continued her awkward gait toward the Liquidation facility. Susan did not think she could stand to follow.
As the Mech reached the steps of the facility, Susan called out to her, holding the ticket with arms extended. Reggie turned her head, legs still rising and falling against her will, as Susan shredded the ticket into bits. She imagined that she heard the screeching metal of a smile forming as Reggie opened the door, and disappeared.