I only have 12 hours, 10 minutes and 19 seconds of freedom left and I feel utterly paralyzed. Though I have never met any, the Old Ones say that the last 24 hours are the worst, that the paralysis sets in and there’s nothing you can do about it. I believe it now. I always swore that it would be different for me, that I’d be Partnering with somebody – or several somebodies – up to the last second. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
There are those who whisper that our last vaccination, always given at puberty, contains a drug that keeps our minds and bodies ready and open for Partnering and that its effects wear off exactly 24 hours before our twentieth birthdays. I believe that now, too. It was as if a light went out in my head and between my legs. The very idea of Partnering makes me sick to the stomach. If it is a drug wearing off, it’s damn timely and effective.
Of course, that’s not all. My CU-Screen, which has always shown titillating CU-Screenplays, now shows nothing but LifePartner- and DigiRest-sponsored BingeSeries. I swear they’re louder and brighter than the earlier fare. It’s hard to take one’s eyes off of them.
Though I am mesmerized by both, LifePartner gets my fullest attention. Judging by the comments on SocialNet, that’s true of most. LifePartner Humbotics, Inc. manufactures the most life-like humbots. According to their ads and their CU-Screen serials, they’re just one step away from being sentient. “They’re not robots, they’re Humbots and the best life partners to be found! They even have a funny bone!”
That refers to, of course, the most successful advertising campaign ever known: Jerry L., the star of thousands of comedies, beloved by all, who turned out to be a LifePartner humbot. He still tells jokes in a “club” within the Smithsonian-LifePartner Museum. He’s pretty good.
So, as a soon-to-be (11 hours, three minutes and four seconds) non-Breeder and bonafide Old One, I get to choose a LifePartner humbot to be my mate. I already have him pictured in my mind, and therefore on the CU-Screen whenever I want to call him up. He is, of course, gorgeous, with blue penetrating eyes, black hair, cleft chin and full lips. I plan on calling him Boone. We get a year to tweak our selections (green eyes might be nice), but after that we’re stuck with whatever (whomever?) we’ve chosen, for, as they say, the duration. Or until we choose DigiRest.
Many choose DigiRest right away, at least according to the company’s statistics, which is all we have. A full 35 percent go that route right away. When I’m watching one of their soothing ads or CU-Screenplays, I can almost understand why someone would choose InstantLifeSleep over having to become one of the Workers, despite having a LifePartner to welcome you home.
Let’s face it: After 10-12 years of being a Breeder, one gets used to all that fun and freedom. But, as they say, one has to pay for all that freedom by going into service. In just a few short hours I’ll be assigned to one of the Ancients as a PillowPartner. It’s not like I know how to do anything else. And there’s nothing else I could do even if I could. Humbots do absolutely everything else. Oh, but the thought of hands that are 35 years or older touching me … ugh.
I turn my eyes away from the CU-Screen – and my thoughts away from the Ancients – and check SocialNet, even though what little there is on SocialNet right now is merely irritating at this point. It used to be (just yesterday!) my life-blood, fueling my drive for bigger and better Partnering events. Oh, the Breeders are still at it, but in the last 12 hours I’ve found myself shutting down their chatter, except for Bren. Bren’s six months younger than I and still hormone-driven. It’s rather endearing.
Argh! Was that my first OldThought? Yes, I think it was.
“D, u ok?” she asks. I’m touched by her concern, given that she has one guy sticking his tongue into her ear and another pulling her toward a PleasureLounger. She giggles, doesn’t wait for my response and her feed goes dark.
I’m annoyed, but not that annoyed. I get it. With just 10 hours and one minute left, I call up the LifePartner order screen and go to my “favorites.” I let the six I’ve chosen strut their stuff in RealTime, then whittle it down to two. Aware that I’m down to two choices (though I’m not certain “aware” is the right word here), the two – Model 2206CB and Model 2190LV – give it all they’ve got to garner my favor. My finger hovers over the touchscreen, going from one to the other. In the end, I close my eyes and stab. Model 2190LV it is. He smiles adoringly at me. I smile back, then kill the screen. The last hours I will spend sleeping.
I think the hardest part is moving out of the Pleasure Dome. It’s been my home since I was 10. It had been difficult to move out of the Nursery as well. At the exact second that I turn 20, three humbots are at the door, ready to carry my belongings (what little I have) and escort me to my new home. The ride on the GlideRail is smooth and quick. I see nothing as there are no windows. They could have at least sent some entertaining humbots; my escorts are sticks.
There is no dome over The Colony, home to the Old Ones, and now to me. The air is thick and burns my nostrils. The complex is made up of stack after gray stack of cinder block boxes. There are no windows. My escorts fairly rush me inside. There is no lobby, no common room, merely an elevator; a humbot presses the button for the top floor. They leave my side without a word at the door of a new chamber, a new life. I press the thumb pad and the door slides open.
There he is, Boone, my new LifePartner. He’s even better looking than his on-screen self. I’m glad I chose blue eyes, they’re cool but hot, if you know what I mean.
“Welcome home, Diana” he says in a husky drawl. “Please don’t bother with your belongings; it will be my pleasure to see to them.”
I step inside. The rooms – there are three – are smaller than the ones I just left. The kitchen/dining area barely fits two. The living/sleeping section has room for a ConvertoSleeper, chair and CU-Screen. I’ll miss my big, full PleasureLounge. The first thing I notice about the tiny bathroom is that there is no mirror. All the better to not see one grow old?
It’s never too late to choose DigiRest, I remind myself, parroting the ads. My stomach growls.
“Do you wish for a refreshment?” Boone asks, startling me.
“Yes, that would be lovely,” I say, mimicking his formal way of speaking. I might have to have that part of his personality tweaked.
Boone pulls several vacutainers from a shelf, unzips them and pours their contents into a divided dish. They’re all varying shades of brown.
“Yum,” I say when he sets the dish in front of me. The sarcasm is lost on him. At least in the Pleasure Dome, an effort was made to make the Soytein look palatable. The taste, I discover, is just as bad as it looks.
“What?” I say, looking up at Boone who is hovering over me, “you’re not going to join me?”
“While I don’t require sustenance, I am capable of ingesting food products if required.” He pauses. “Am I required?”
“No,” I say, laughing, my first laugh in a long time. “No one should be required to eat this.” I push the plate away and hope that the Ancient I am to serve the next day will also serve me – food that is.
While Boone tidies up what little there is to tidy, I park myself in front of the CU-Screen. Before long, I’m yawning. I’m not used to doing nothing. There’s no rule that says I can’t go outside or knock on someone’s door, but I’m not up for that yet.
“Argh!” I cry, “I’m so bored!”
If a humbot can look taken aback, Boone does. It’s like he takes it personally.
“I’m so sorry, Diana,” he says. “Please allow me to entertain you. I can sing, dance, play roles – I’m programmed with scripts from over a thousand CU-Screenplays – I know every game, can tell jokes and much more. Perhaps you would like to be intimate?”
“You can’t be serious!”
“I am incapable of lying,” Boone says flatly. It sounds almost like a challenge.
I file that statement away for further examination. Suddenly I’m totally exhausted. It might be the middle of the afternoon, but I need to sleep. Isn’t that what Old Ones do?
The morning shower will take some getting used to. No more luxuriating. It’s a quick, sharp blast of tepid, soapy water, then a short pause. Next, a slightly longer blast of cold water, then a strong, hot burst of air that nearly knocks me off my feet. Done.
Before I’m completely dressed (only a short robe is required), two humbots are at the door, ready to escort me to an Ancient One. Nervous, I’m chatty, but the bots are all business. By the time I’m standing before the Ancient’s door, I’m a mass of nerves. My knees actually knock together as I press the thumb pad.
The less said about the day, the better, but I will say this: I never, ever want to become an Ancient. I’ll take DigiRest first. His skin is loose and spotty; his eyes runny and red. And his hands, those awful hands! The fingernails are yellow and thick, the knuckles huge and knotty. The only saving grace was that I got to eat and the Ancient tired easily; he slept much of the time.
Still, I feel utterly dirty and spent when I reach my chamber. It’s a new feeling for me. Partnering as a Breeder always left me energized and sharp. This, though, was sad and ugly.
Boone is waiting just inside the door, a cocktail in his hand. I grab it and throw it down my throat before I think to ask where it came from. Liquor is forbidden here.
“It seems you made an impression,” Boone says, pointing to a crock on the counter. “It was sent by your Ancient.”
“He’s not my Ancient,” I snap. I head to the ConvertoSleeper, which Boone has already prepared, and curl up facing the wall. Before long, I feel his weight on the thin pallet. He matches my contours and holds me. I let him.
The next day is a free day. It’s a good thing; I’m still exhausted. It’s almost as if life is being sucked out of me. I’d like to just sit and stare at the CU-Screen all day, but Boone suggests a walk.
“A walk? Out there?” I ask. “Aren’t we … uh, I … supposed to limit my exposure to the air?”
“The recommendation is no more than 10 minutes at a time, yes,” Boone says. “I believe you will greatly benefit from this outing.”
There’s something in the way he says it that makes me curious. Curiosity is new to me. It’s not something that is encouraged. I agree anyway.
Outside, Boone produces a small, white mask and places it over my nose and mouth.
“Will this really help?” I ask. I can already feel a slight burning in my throat.
Boone surprises me by grabbing my hand and holding it as we walk. He squeezes it a couple of times.
“It will help in some regards,” he answers. I feel like he’s telling me two things. I just can’t figure out what one of them is.
The area around the compound is blandly ugly, all grays and browns, even the air. We walk without talking. In fact, every time I begin to say something, Boone squeezes my hand again, shutting me up. We come to a slight rise. On top, I see something I’ve never seen before. It’s flat, black, oily and utterly huge. It stretches out for as far as my eyes can see. It scares me.
Boone pulls me to its edge. Reluctantly, I follow.
“The Great Ocean,” he says, barely moving his lips.
It smells of salt and dead things. Dotting its surface are tall, gray columns, topped by slowly spinning blades.
“Windmills,” Boone says. “They provide power, at least when there’s wind.” Again, he barely moves his lips. “It’s the one thing your kind did well, finally, though it was much too late.
“You have questions,” he adds. “You may talk here, but only with the mask.” He looks out over the water and I follow suit.
“Why is it so still?” I ask. I truly don’t know what to ask, not yet.
“Once, a long time ago, there were many oceans and each one teemed with life.”
“Life?” I say. “People?”
A small smile plays on his lips. “No, though people did swim in it, sailed boats upon it and took sustenance from it. There were fish, crabs, lobsters, tiny plankton, giant creatures called whales and sharks. Dolphins and porpoises played amongst its waves.”
I have no idea what he’s talking about. These words are strange to me. We learned nothing of such things in the Nursery. Boone actually sighs when he sees how my eyes scrunch up.
“I’m going to do something,” he says, still looking ahead. “It’s important to not flinch or act surprised.”
“Okay,” I say, trusting him.
Slowly, he brings his hand up and places it on the back of my neck. It feels surprisingly warm. He spreads his fingers, placing his fingertips just beneath my ear. At first, I feel a tingling sensation there, then, shockingly, I hear his voice coming through his fingers. No wonder he warned me not to flinch.
“I can communicate with you in this manner when we are not here,” he says though his fingers. “You, however, cannot talk back unless you are wearing the mask and we are near the ocean. Do you understand?”
“Yes and no,” I say. “I understand what you’re saying, but don’t understand why you’re saying it. I’m afraid.”
“You should be afraid, but not about what I will tell you. All will become clear,” he says. He takes his hand away from my neck and lets it rest on the small of my back, like a lover would. “It’s time to go back,” he adds. I notice that this time his lips move normally.
I’m bursting with questions, but resort to silly chatter. I’m good at it. Still, it’s odd interacting with a humbot this way. They were always silent workers in the Pleasure Dome, sort of a backdrop. I’m trying to wrap my head around that and what he’s told me so far. It’s exciting and scary at the same time. I’m anxious to learn more.
After another horrid meal, helped by a few swigs of the Ancient’s liquor, Boone and I settle in front of the CU-Screen. It’s comedy night, with humbots competing to win the Jerry L. Comedy Award. They don’t show the audience, but I know it’s full of Breeders looking for some diversion. I know, I’ve been there myself.
Pretty soon, Boone stretches an arm across the back of the ConvertoSleeper like a shy lover. Knowing what’s coming, I can barely pay attention to the jokes, but try to laugh appropriately. After a few beats, Boone begins to massage my shoulder, then my neck. It actually feels wonderful, so I’m a bit startled when he starts talking through his fingers. I smile at him, then turn back to the screen.
“Very good,” he says. “I knew you would be a fast learner.”
The praise pleases me.
“If you sit on the floor between my knees,” he says with his mouth, “it would be my pleasure to give you one of my special neck massages.”
“That would be wonderful, Boone,” I say, tossing a small cushion onto the floor. I sink down on it and stretch out my legs. He’s soon massaging and finger talking. I’m not sure which one I like better.
“In order to understand your world as it is today,” he says, “you first need to know how it was in the past. Not the past that only goes back to your nursery days, but the past that came long, long before.”
I moan with the pressure on my neck. It’s both a signal to continue and one of contentment.
“I know you have been taught that the world consists of the Nursery, the Pleasure Dome, the Colony and the Ancients’ Domain. This is not so. This world, the planet earth, is far larger than one can imagine. It is part of an even larger thing called the universe, filled with stars and other planets. This earth, in fact, is home to other people across the Great Ocean.”
“Boo! Hiss!” I screech at the screen, but what I’m really telling Boone is that I’m not pleased, nor inclined to believe or understand what he just said.
“Hush,” he says, continuing to massage. “I don’t expect you to grasp it all immediately. Please just listen. There will be a time for questions and more answers.”
I clap for the latest joke, signaling to go on, not really sure I’m ready for that.
“The earth is ancient,” he says. “Not like the Ancients are ancient, but billions of years old. It was a paradise of verdant fields, huge forests of trees; clean, clear oceans, lakes and streams; home to millions of species of birds, plants, insects, animals and sea creatures. Not to mention billions of people.”
Again, I am overwhelmed. Again, he’s using words I simply can’t comprehend. I give my head a shake as if to brush away a stray hair. What are trees, I wonder. Birds? Lakes? If only he can transmit images through those fingers of his.
“I know it’s a lot to digest,” he says, making small circles under my earlobes. It hurts, but it feels good. “Through greed and a thirst for power, your kind destroyed the balance that kept the world’s abundant life fed. Its livable acres shrunk to two-thirds its size. Then one-third as the oceans rose higher. What little land was left became barren and useless, poisoned by the greedy. The few who survive, who hold the reins of power, do so at the cost of the powerless. You are, I’m afraid, more of a servant than I am.”
At this, I rise, rigid, angry. I try not to let it show. I make a dismissive gesture at the screen.
“Those judges,” I say, “what do they know? It’s clear to me who the winner is.”
I have never been so angry, so distraught. I have been a Breeder for half my life, free to do what I will, to have fun, to bed whomever I choose. Servant indeed!
“Prepare the sleeping space,” I say, hautily. “I am in need of rest.”