(Kelly was written by Kelly Blanchard, and Myriam was written by Lia Rees.)
The city centre, the Nexus, was electric in the evening. Literally so. Every wall was a constantly shifting landscape of imagery and light, and music pulsed through the entire scene as people danced, talked and ate at casual low tables. Holographic soda shakes were dancing in the street—an advert from one of the City’s System-sanctioned businesses. A few young people were half-heartedly dancing with them, but most walked straight through them. The advert was weeks old.
Noticing a young woman looking bewildered in the midst of it all, Myriam-83 stepped out across the electronic sidewalk. A wiry, animated woman with a headful of dark curls, she seemed to be energized by the noise.
“You must be Kelly,” she smiled. “I recognize the dress style—early 21st century Earth, right? Yeah, that’s you all right. Come with me.”
She took Kelly’s hand and led her down an even more bewildering set of passages, fending off people’s advances as they went, until they arrived at a much calmer place. It was a secluded pod with a table and chairs. They had a somewhat rounded, amoeboid shape but were otherwise recognizable as a welcome place to sit.
“Look, I’m really sorry about the craziness,” Myriam said, sinking into a chair. “It’s a bit of a weird time for me. I just brought out a new advert for my political campaign a day ago, and half the City hates my guts. It’s been nothing but arguments all day, with a sprinkling of besotted admirers to balance it out. But you don’t want to hear that stuff…yet. Can the synthdroid make you a coffee? Go on, I programmed it specifically for you. We don’t drink it around here.”
A small robotic server with a rounded shape and friendly appearance rolled quietly into view with an empty cup.
Kelly dismissed this with a wave of her hand and smiled. “I’ve never drank coffee anyway, so don’t worry about it. I’m quite fine, thank you.” She sat down and took in her surroundings. “This is quite a place, very unusual than what I’m used to, but then again I live in the middle of nowhere.” She smiled at Myriam as she shifted in her seat to get comfortable. “So, you’re a politician?” Kelly raised her brows. “What kind? Explain to me how your whole world works. I am completely clueless but curious.”
Myriam ordered a coffee and sampled it with evident curiosity. “So this is what primitive cafdrinks used to taste like. Interesting! Still, we’re not here to investigate your culture—we have the Library for that, though I do wonder how much of its resources are accurate. I’ll start by explaining the System. It’s actually hard to explain. How do you explain air or water to someone who doesn’t breathe? That’s the scale of difficulty we’re dealing with here. But imagine something like a supercomputer, a government and a religion rolled up into one. Except we don’t have those words any more in our language. It’s all System. We’re born on the baby farms, educated there by teachdroids and volunteers, and taught the basics of how to treat others. Then we enter adult life on a revolving rota of jobs assigned to us according to our talents. Of course, not all jobs are as fun as others—you might get foodserv or sanitation for a term. But on the other hand, nobody ever goes hungry. I can’t imagine any other way of life.”
“And you were given the job of a politician?” Kelly tilted her head as she sat back in her chair, her arm folded over her to hold her other arm. This was a curious way of life.
“Well, not exactly. The System allows anyone to form a campaign group and put forward ideas to the popular vote. I was working on the baby farm when I had my brainwave, so I formed ReBirth to put it forward. It’s had…” she wrinkled her nose, “Mixed reception.”
“And what is ReBirth?” Kelly could imagine but wanted to understand it better.
Myriam had a sip of the coffee. “This actually improves as you drink it. Maybe I’ll put the recipe in permanent storage. Anyway…ReBirth. I’d been in the Library immediately before the baby farm, to prepare my knowledge base with the history of childcare. And I was interested in the way babies were farmed—well, born—in primitive cultures. There was this concept called “maternal bonding” that kept appearing in my research. And it started me thinking: yes, we create embryos in our labs with the safest modern technology, genetically engineered for intelligence, physical health and good nature. Yes, we raise children with the best electronic teachers, and educate them with the finest fruits of the Library’s research. But could there not be something lacking? Something…emotional? I began to wonder whether getting rid of the parental unit was the brainwave we’d always been taught it was.”
Kelly nodded as she came to understand–better than Myriam probably realized. She cast her gaze about, seeing how some people were still gawking at them, but at least they had their privacy. This entire system, all these people, without a parental unit—disturbing, but at least they seemed to function. Kelly then shifted her gaze back to Myriam. “And what have you discovered?”
She drained the coffee. “Nothing yet—until we experiment. I’m pushing for the experiment to begin. We know how babies are made, obviously. So we just need to send out a call for volunteers to form family units. The experiment needs to be safely monitored, and it needs to start small. It also needs to be done with stable relationships, which puts half of our culture out of the running for a start. And that,” she finished, “is why most of the City think I’m a bizarre throwback to the dark ages. Why bring back random selection and isolated pair bonds and social instability? All the chaos that caused the Catastrophe on Earth, in other words. Without which we wouldn’t even be here.” She gave a wicked smile. Despite her words, there was definitely an undercurrent of enjoyment. “But I thrive on chaos. It’s what I do, and it’s why I live round here. My best friend Ayla can’t stand it.”
“Tell me about Ayla.” Kelly prompted as she leaned forward, set her elbow on the table and propped her chin in her palm. “Since you don’t have parental units, I’m assuming friends are the closest you all get. So, how did you two meet?” She raised her brows.
Despite the mention of her friend, Myriam looked saddened. “She’s got a talent for creating beautiful things. She had a light show of hers playing right here— ” she gestured out of the window, where a bubble car was quietly landing. “Synchronised music and everything. But she was like you; couldn’t stand the buzz of this place, and all the people jostling her. I found her sitting in this room to escape, and I struck up a conversation.” She sighed. “It was all going so well back then. It’s only lately she’s changed.”
“How so?” Kelly tilted her head and furrowed her brows as she pulled back in her chair.
“She’s become distant. Disconnected somehow…I might even say bitter at times. She’s less interested in art and music, and she keeps on saying these strange things about the System. Like it’s…exploiting us in some way. Like we’re not a free society. I don’t even know what she’s talking about sometimes. How could we possibly be more free than we are? She wants us to choose our own jobs. How would that work?” She shakes her head. “I wish those aliens had never landed here. It’s all their stupid ideas.”
This pricked Kelly attention, and she sat up straighter. “What aliens?”
Myriam ordered another coffee to fortify herself. She seemed to be hesitating over another option on the synthdroid—something stronger, perhaps?—but she changed her mind, and went for the coffee.
“Ah, we’ve got ambassadors from so many different planets. Some of them humanoid, some semi-humanoid, some…very strange indeed. Ayla’s got Elite Hedona status, which means she’s an expert at making people happy. So the current administrators (they change every six months) assigned her to entertain them, show them around the City, engage them in conversation and whatever else they need when they’re away from home. And what happens? They’ve put all these ridiculous ideas in her head and now she wants to change the world. I tell you, I’m worried, and I don’t know how this will end.”
Kelly frowned. It sounded like Myriam had wanted to change the world with the ReBirth, but apparently Ayla was too but in a different way. “She folded her arms over her chest as she contemplated this but then finally voiced a question. “What kind of ideas is she talking about?”
Myriam lowered her voice. “Like get rid of the job rota system, maybe destroy the System altogether. Stop the restrictions on work, so you can start any business you want – even if it’s probably going to fail. Bring in all the technology from across the border, even lethal weaponry and unproven medicine. Have wealth and,” she lowered her voice even further, “poverty, like in the dark ages. She’ll say things like ‘People should be free to make their own futures,’ or “We need to struggle and triumph without being spoon fed”. As I said, crazy talk. I know my ideas are strange, but hers are suicidal.”
“Sounds like chaos to me.” Kelly tilted her head to a side as she observed Myriam. “And you said you like chaos.”
Myriam waved a hand at the milling crowds outside. The evening was darkening and the light displays were going wild. “I like…controlled chaos. Dancing on the edge, when you know it’s going to be alright really. But what she’s saying—no safety net? No collective responsibility, no organization? Absolute madness. If it’s an idea from one of those alien planets, it can stay right there forever.”
“Ayla’s idea isn’t as bad as it sounded.” Kelly finally scooted to the edge of her chair as she rested her forearms on the table and clasped her hands together. She held Myriam’s gaze. “How else do you think I’m even here? No System could have imagined what I did that brought me here. Yes, there’s a lot of potential for scary things to happen, but there are amazing things that no one could ever imagine if they’re not allowed to.” She then pulled back. It wasn’t her place to tell Myriam what was wrong or right. Kelly was merely here to collect information.
She then smiled at Myriam. “Let’s move on from that topic, shall we? I’d like to get to know you better as an individual. Do people in your culture have relationships? Or how does that work since you are all part of this System?”
Myriam collected herself. Kelly’s words had briefly solidified the darkest fear in her mind, the thing everyone in the City dreaded the most: the thought of being without the System. It was a void she would not bring herself to look at. She pulled back just in time and thought of brighter things.
“Oh, relationships are positively encouraged. Happiness is the key to life—we learn that from childhood—and relationships are part of the key to happiness. We can have a single relationship or as many as we want, as long as all participants agree. We also have a system of marriage with renewal options for one, five and ten years.”
“And are you in such a relationship? with your political…status and ideas, I imagine that might be difficult.”
“I had ideas…but no. Not with the way things are.” She had a tone of absolute finality. “I’m throwing myself into campaigning, volunteering and Library research. That should be everything I need for a happy life. Everything whatsoever.”
Kelly nodded. She understood the sacrifice. “And do you have…” She paused. Her question of what Myriam’s dreams of life might not translate well with someone of this System, so she decided to rephrase it immediately. “Your idea with the ReBirth—what is your ultimate goal with that?”
Myriam looked out of the window again. “I’d like our people—and our children—to reap the benefits of that wonderful emotional bonding I’ve read about. Imagine a society where children could walk the streets, play outside, learn from people and be truly part of our lives. Why do we keep them in baby farms and let synthdroids educate them? The more I read about primitive history in the Library, the more unnatural our way seems. But I can’t talk about that in public. Too much too soon. Let it be an experiment—that’s all for now. Or I’ll lose what little ground I’ve managed to get with my persuasive skills.”
Her ideas didn’t seem too far from Ayla’s but came from a completely different direction, so Kelly decided to try a different angle. “And what is it that you fear the most?”
Myriam’s body stiffened. She was back at the edge of the void again. “Before the System, there was nothing. No light, no peace or security. We came to this planet from a hopeless place where people fought tooth and nail for the necessities of life. I won’t tell you the sickening details of the ruin of Earth, but the sanitized version is taught to children as a cautionary tale. It was the creation of the System that saved us all. We give life to it with every breath, every good action towards another person, every kind word. It protects us from ourselves and from each other. It raised me, built me, made me the best person I can be: I owe it everything. And my best friend wants to throw it away,” she ended in a whisper. “My greatest fear is that she may be right.”
Kelly leaned in close to her, locked eyes, not letting her look away, and then she smiled. “Don’t fear the unknown. Don’t believe everything everyone has told you just because they all repeat it over and over and over again. It doesn’t make it true. Ayla has discovered something you haven’t, and that is called truth. What she does with it, what you do with it, and what everyone does with it is up to you.” She then pulled back but maintained her smile as she tilted her head. “And I’m living proof that it isn’t so bad to live without the System.”
Then Kelly glimpsed around. Her time here was done, so she rose to her feet and smiled once more at her host. “Thank you for this chat. I hope you have some things to contemplate. Ayla needs you more than you realize, so don’t turn your back on her. Sometimes a broken bone heals incorrectly, and the only way to fix it is to rebreak it and set it properly, so it will heal properly. And I will leave you with that thought.” Kelly bowed her head then stepped out and vanished in the crowd.
Myriam ordered the “something stronger” she’d been hesitating over during the interview. She hoped it would open her mind and help her process her feelings. The crowd outside was no more frantic than usual, but it suddenly seemed intimidating – even draining. She decided to stay in here for a little space and some serious thought.
Note: Lia Rees will be publishing her book, ‘Her Name is Liberty,’ under the name Arienne Bird. Follow her on Facebook and check out the awesome services she offers to writers to promote their own work!
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