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Rated: E · Short Story · Sci-fi · #2156688
Domestic lives of the future from the perspectives of husband and wife.
Lunch with her friends had been nice but it was time to clean up. Nala tapped her Chroma fingernails in sequence, each one blinking a bright primary hue to signal its readiness. Her hands flicked across air as she called her music folder up on the display of her telecontact lenses. She lined up some obscure playlist she had apparently named Cloud Biology. Her cartilage implants hummed: the opening song was a glitch-opera.

Nala picked up the dishes, small forks and delicate cake knives (they were tinted orange and had been bought very cheaply at a garage sale), and brought them into the kitchen. She unfolded the feeder racks from underneath the sink: panes of plastic stacked inside a transparent cube of sky-blue azurite that could be manually or electronically adjusted to allow for varying amounts of space between them. The gaps would then fill with the gel that cleaner colonies used to facilitate movement. The current configuration was fine so Nala put the plates into the cube, shut the rack back under the sink, and turned it on.

A buzzing noise let her know that the cleaning colony had gone bad. She pulled the reservoir open and saw that the cylinder was a putrid yellow. The cleaning colony had spoiled from exposure to direct sunlight. (Richard was careless with colonies, rationalizing that they were just bacteria.) With a sympathetic coo, Nala dropped it in the bin for bio-disposables. She grabbed a fresh cylinder from the closet and gave it a tap. There was a reassuring ripple of silver-blue vitality. The cylinder replaced, Nala turned it on, and saw that it was good.

“Chroma Open,” she prompted, “bedtime reminder: make sure the bio-bin goes out tomorrow morning. Chroma Close.” Sunlight could usually be trusted to annihilate a cleaning colony but there were the occasional hangers-on. (A neighbour had once neglected to close their bin lid when it held an apparently expired cleaning colony. The intrepid swarm had escaped in the night and eaten its way through his coatroom before daybreak finally halted its progress.) Her memoranda taken, Nala flicked the playlist off and got herself ready to run some errands.

Nala chose to walk rather than take transit. It was nice out and the skyways were open. Terraced gardens cascaded down from spaces between buildings, and she munched happily on some apple slices while looking down through the clear lucimer path. From her vantage it looked like she walked over a spread of flowers some great hand had scattered over the city. She laughed and did her best not to skip.

Her ear buzzed; she snapped her fingers, telling it to go ahead. It was good news. Someone on SunList was selling some books that Richard had expressed an interest in. (They were probably those archaic writers he liked so much. Written by vicious, useless people with strange names like Locke or Smith.) Her lenses marked the building for her, then charted a path that took her off the skyway down to ground level. She found herself standing in front of a quaint faux-stone apartment and buzzed to be let in. She would get the books, even if she didn’t see the appeal. Richard could be so restless, his head filled with unsatisfied expectations of heroism and grandeur. Nala hoped his current trip would afford him some excitement.

*****


The communications light above Richard Shruber’s cot blinked a pacific blue. Why can’t it be red? The freight had no other crew, so Shruber roused himself. He swiped across the wall mounted screen with his free hand, the other keeping place in the book he had been reading. The friendly face of a stammering cartoon pig appeared. Shruber smiled. The company had phased out live management over a decade ago, which suited him just fine. He preferred the company totem to its chiefs.

The pig never stammered when it delivered instructions. He had heard that it was once the copyright of a syndicated television series, back when those three concepts were actual things. The company had paid a large sum for the rights to it but intellectual property laws had been made defunct less than a decade later. The problem, Shruber thought, with trusting your future to a clustershuck of numbers. The pig had finally come to its major points, which were always posted at the end of a presentation in easy to read block letters. Shruber’s eyes dutifully scanned the advisories. After confirming that they were all boilerplate, he flicked the screen off.

Shruber had a difficult decision to make: he could lie down and sleep, or he could grab some coffee and stay up. Work out a bit, maybe read some. He looked out the window and saw nothing but darkness dotted by a few insignificant specks of starlight. Space. Infinite, incomprehensible, and boring as shit. He glanced down at the book he was reading. A copy of The Golden Fleece glanced back. It was a romantic translation, rife with swords, sorcery, and all kinds of fantastic acts. The choice was pretty easy after that. Shruber made his way to the small kitchenette in the back.

He had coffee, whiskey, all kinds of hard candy, and self-ready meals. He grudgingly admitted that the company took care of its workers. Well, the ones that weren’t automated, which were few. It wasn’t that people weren’t willing to work, because they were. The Voluntary Worker laws had been passed a little over a decade ago specifically to allow for the large numbers of people who wanted to work despite the facts that automation and state regulation ensured their basic needs were met. But few people were willing to leave Earth for the long trips demanded by freighter life, unless they were moving off planet or were on some kind of field trip. When people left Earth, they did so briefly and in large numbers. Scared of the dark.

The problem, Shruber had decided, was that we've become herd animals. We forgot what it is to be men. Shruber had always been a societal outlier. The city’s Academy had over a half million students graduating on any given year, but he had been one of less than a thousand that qualified for, and completed, a classical education. He was intimately familiar with tragedies, comedies, romances, and heroic epics; he made a habit of working out on a semi-regular basis, and tried to eat unspliced foods. He drank, sometimes heavily, but didn’t smoke.

Shruber took his coffee, poured in a shot of whiskey, and shifted to the front of the freighter. Setting his book on an armrest, Shruber took a deep draw from his cup. Infinite, incomprehensible, and boring as shit. There was no kind of life, here or back home, for a man like Richard Shruber. Exhausted by these ruminations, he sighed wearily, drained his cup, and headed back to the kitchenette.

*****


Several hours later, and Schruber was fuming. Of course a customs patrol had to have been stationed just outside the Mars colony he was delivering to, and of course the inspections team had to be headed by a woman. Time crept by. Please don't ping me. There's no need for a... Schruber's thoughts were interrupted as Inspector Pamelle issued her verdict.

“Driver Shruber? Stand by for resonance survey, ready in ten minutes.”

A goddamn ping! Swallowing his ire, Shruber nodded in affirmation and started gathering the materials he needed to weather the procedure. He grabbed a crash sack, stuffed it full of clothing and loose fabric, then snuggled in. When he had cinched the top almost all the way shut, he poked his head out the sleeve and mumbled that he was ready.

At first, nothing. Then a low musical tone indicating the first resonance wave was sounding out the ship's nooks and crannies. This was followed by a barrage of wavering frequencies that set everything in the ship bouncing around. Artificial gravity was disabled during a ping procedure, and the concussive force of the resonance wave sent everything in the cabin rocketing around. Shruber was sent flying from corner to corner, making sure to curl his head into his chest to avoid injury; the cookware and other accoutrements were all made of lucimer or azurite and easily withstood the damage.

The entire procedure took about fifteen minutes, after which gravity was restored and Shruber inched his way from the crash sack. He cricked his back and rubbed feeling back into the more bruised areas of his chest and back. Damn the life, he thought. And damn that woman.

*****


Nala had decided to take the transit home as both her hands were now filled with goods. In addition to Richard’s books, she had bought groceries for later in the week, and some wine for the film club later tonight. She was now carrying several bags, but she hadn’t felt like commissioning a drone to send it all home. Sitting down at a nearby bench, Nala freed her hands and flicked the sequence to check for transit schedules and advisories.

The Non-Automated Nation had claimed responsibility for a stabbing not too far away. That was unfortunate, as Nala had not thought to bring her Suture Buddy. Last week, the N-AN had been using a weaponised form of diabetes (how did that work, anyways? Some kind of retrovirus?), and Nala had only needed to carry a cap of Panacea to be safe. (Dr. Than had told her that if she swallowed it within a minute of infection, she’d be fine; otherwise, kaput.) She was fairly certain she’d be okay anyways, though. It was a good neighbourhood. The people around her seemed alert and sincere. Choosing a transit route, Nala keyed in her request and waited.

The rickshaw arrived about seven minutes later. It was a compact vehicle with a rectangular body and a conical nose. Transit rickshaws were completely automated, and it was with some relief at not having to make polite conversation that Nala stepped into the back. She made sure to lock the side doors, and set the driver to high security. This done, Nala sank into the plush sedan chair and pulled up her ChromActive account. She confirmed several invitations to various events and let the gallery know she would be working her shift tomorrow. Not that she ever needed to, of course, but she had promised.

Kris had sent her a message, which she eagerly opened. The man had a talent for finding the weirdest things which he then posted on every ‘net he could sink his eyes into. The message opened a video showing a protest rave happening downtown at that very moment. A sense hacker had put together a potent neurotext code that compelled an intense serotonin rush in anyone who read it. This code had been printed on a massive flag that was flown in front of a large company just before their morning rally. Every employee who showed up to sing the company anthem that day had been rewarded with a great party and a chemical dependency that would take weeks to shake off.

(It didn’t seem very nice, but the workers looked so happy, with beaming smiles and loosened suits. It was a welcome change from their normally dour and militant demeanour. Office workers could be so tribal about their corporate affiliations.)

Nala hoped Pytha would show up tonight for film club. The two had recently had an intense duel while playing Refugee Island Warriors at the arcade. (Players from across the arena had stopped fighting just to watch them.) Pytha had found herself a crossbow while Nala was only armed with a knife. On numbers alone, it looked pretty bad. Both women had great cardio, and both took fighting classes twice a week; neither had any formal training in firing a crossbow. Nala’s avatar had taken a quarrel to the shoulder, for which she was given an intense jolt by her playing rig.

Playing through the pain, Nala closed while Pytha reloaded, and she sank her knife into the forehead of Pytha’s avatar. They hadn’t spoken since. Not that Pytha had said anything at the time, but Nala still felt a little bad. (Happy to occupy fifth place in an arena with a weekly membership of over 200 gladiators, but a little bad nonetheless.)

Sighing, Nala thought about the blinking new entry in her contact list. The bookseller had proved to be a worker from the Civic Union Registry, a divorce worker. It was hard for Nala not to see an element of synchronicity in all this: even as she looked over the titles of the books she had bought for Richard (no philosophy this time, thankfully: The Fall of the House of Usher, Brave New World, and a newly released translation of Hesiod’s Theogeny), Nala could sense a widening gulf between her husband and herself. Neither of them were dissatisfied, but neither one was really happy. He was a complex man, his inner life rife with singular narratives of half-gods and totem beasts. She was a simple girl with simple tastes, and she was satisfied with the quiet little life she had made for herself.

She gave herself a shake as the transit pulled up alongside the walkway leading home. She quickly accessed her Chroma, released the locks to her front door, and turned lights and music on. This accomplished, she hooked an arm through her bags and left the rickshaw. Her lenses flashed updates on request, and she was relieved to see that she had a few hours between now and the film club later that evening.

Nala yawned, caught herself, and had to laugh. How could one person get so tired doing so little?
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