Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dystopian interlude

Eubert slouched in his chair. Its thin organic frame accordion deftly, adapting to the curve of his back. "I don't dream," he said. "I use an enceph."

He got up and crossed the room to his mattress. The enceph lay padlocked to a titanium ringlet sealed to the floor. He picked it up, hefted it on its length of tarnished chain. The enceph was flexible, barely; he pressed against its top until the electrodes inside caught the light like so many octopus sucker-pads.

"But that's not dreaming," Sterope said. "It's artificial. Like playing a game." She shook her head, disgusted with herself. "Well, that's not right either. You're not playing it; it plays you."

Eubert dropped the enceph to the mattress and walked back onto the dead lawn, grinding a weed under his heel. The sunlamps fixed to the ceiling threw his face into relief: thinning brown hair, large ears, a nearly lipless mouth touched by a congenital half-smile. He scratched mold from his cheek. "You're awfully cynical," he said.

"I'm not sure I know what that means."

Eubert shrugged. "I'm not sure you do either." He sat back down on the collapsible chair. "You mean to tell me you don't use an enceph?"

Sterope smiled awkwardly and hugged her knees to her chest. "That's what I'm saying."

"And the Ministry lets you get by with it."

Her smile faded. "They don't ask, I don't tell."

"Dreaming," Eubert said wonderingly.

"Maybe you should try it."

"I've tried it," he said.

"When you were a kid. Before you were fitted." She laughed dryly. "You're such a prude. Such a square. It's almost endearing." She stared into her empty vial and extended it to the robot.

"Thank you, madam," the robot said, plucking the vial from her fingers. It trudged off through the ankle-high grass. Weeds caught in its treads and dripped yellow spores that made both of them sneeze. It crossed the shallow fiberglass bunker that separated the garden from the rest of the apartment. Eubert almost hurried after it, decided not to at the last second.

"You think I live by the book," he said.

"I know you do."

He shook his head. "We all have vices. Even the Swarmers. Even me."

Sterope looked skeptical and watched the sun set through the apartment's panorama window. The city, crumbled and dirty, welcomed the night. In minutes the only outlines left were those of the Swarmer office towers, glowing blue in vigil. Scattered dirigibles coasted above, tentacles dangling like the legs of airborne wasps.

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