Part three of Eyeball Computer – Tuesday finds herself in a shuttered shop on The Edge in a dentist’s chair… If you like it, share it. The full novel available to buy soon from Leveller’s Press…
At the end of that final day of work she left the hospital and boarded the tram. There was no need to stop to buy sleepers today. Exhaustion had already begun to envelop her. She closed her eyes, so that all she could see was the screen. Floating to the right of her dark vision was the news – drones had destroyed an important Southern air base, the Suburbs were experiencing another smallpox epidemic that posed no danger to immunized cityzens. She switched channels – a documentary about the triumphs of geo-engineering – the famous old footage of the first engineered ice-cap being lowered. She floated peacefully on the water realizing too late that she was sinking, breathing ice. Terrified and coughing, she woke up. Some commuters glanced over curiously.
She fell into bed when she got in and did not wake until the screen reactivated at seven the next morning.
Her neck hurt. Her head ached. She moved gently to see how bad it was. She noticed her uniform, unwashed on the floor. She was meant to have returned it the night before, after work. She would need to take it back, so she could collect another before leaving for the Suburbs. The handwritten notes were inside. They had to be destroyed. She would have to explain the late return and the hole she had made in the lining of the right shoulder.
She set out a little later wearing the bright outfit she had chosen while on a Joy trip: silver leggings projecting vintage clips from children’s cartoons, the pink shoes and a bright yellow smock. An outfit appropriate for clubbing. She held the two notes tightly crumpled inside her fist.
While on the tram, an alert that she had programmed informed her that her stop was next. But she didn’t move. She surprised herself. She didn’t get off at that stop, or the next. The tram began to empty of professionals, who worked mainly in the centre of the City. She had been taught at the Academy that this great City had once been the capital of England – an impoverished ex-industrial state. To liberate the place from its savage history and to indicate its key status at the heart of the Nation, The Corporation had simply, and poetically, re-branded it the ‘City’. The Corporation now based most of its lab work and financial offices here. So the luxury enjoyed by all professional inhabitants – high tech apartments, lifetime gym membership, etcetera etcetera– depended on the wealth generated by this great metropolis. Every cityzen, techy and professional alike, feared relocation to the Suburbs above almost anything else.
Her tram passed the strange old short frilly buildings by the river used as an administrative centre by The Corporation. A few high-level governors got off. Now, the only people left were herself and a cleaning technician with a face mask who hummed to an old cheesy number playing on his screen – ‘Suckin Tits’. The music video to this was predictable but a favourite with men of all ages.
The first stop across the river was the end of the line. She stepped out behind the techy, who doggedly began to hoover the street, still swaying to his music.
She now knew she had a plan, but was too scared to think about it clearly. She climbed steps, which led to the Southern Train Hub. After a quick coffee in the station, making eye-contact with the ticket machine, she boarded a train for the southern edge of the City and the sea. The train flew. She could make out shapes as they flashed past. Rows of high rise apartment blocks were seemingly endless. Close to the river there were the luxury blocks: sleek blue with tinted windows and verdant irrigated roof-gardens. Further on, E-block South was dingier with smaller windows. Some rubbish lay in the streets here: dragged about at night by foxes and seagulls. V Block and beyond were for technicians. Some of these were the remnant of the first wave of high rises from over a hundred years before. The old ones had bits missing and were well known to be extremely flammable. The outer-most, half-vacant, blocks were densely packed between warehouses, recycling plants and other industrial buildings. Almost no light could get through their windows. Decaying piles of rubbish swarmed with fighting squawking seagulls. At regular intervals through the whole City, short fat shopping malls spread out their limbs between the high rises, their rooftops flashing with advertising.
As the train sped, she watched the Reality Channel. D8 mixed close-up shots of couples on dates with commentary offered by celebrities and psychiatrists who specialised in sexual behaviour.
Abruptly she reached the end of the line. Having left the train, she drifted along by the sea next to tram tracks, which separated the City from the waves. The pavement opposite her was lined with filthy crumbling shops that The Corporation used as outlets: strip clubs, kebab bars, and Drugsmarts. Techies came here for pleasure. And there were also a few dance clubs, frequented by wild young professionals.
Her screen played footage of a shadowy couple in a hotel room. The man ravenously licked something from between the woman’s thighs. A psychiatrist’s face – ‘in many species the male uses courting rituals to prepare the female for intercourse. This couple choose to re-invigorate typical foreplay with a delicious fruit flavoured sugar-free gel form of Joy, which can be safely spread anywhere and is proven to have zero side effects!’ Tuesday turned the volume down and continued her walk, attempting to focus on what was around her.
On sale in The Edge from offies – small outlets that also sold drinks and drugs – was sugar in thousands of colourful forms. Professionals avoided sugar. They were fastidious over their health and appearance. But most techies were flabby, or obese; the older ones possessed incomplete sets of yellow and black teeth. She never looked at techies if she could help it. Their ugliness made her nervous. The techies themselves acted as if professionals didn’t really exist.
Waves lapped old pavement slabs about six feet below the level of the street, which decades before had been raised up by concrete injection, to save the Edge from the rising sea. A low concrete wall separated the street from the sheer drop. Emerging from the water, slightly out to sea, were the skeletons of rotten buildings – girders and breezeblocks. Rubbish swirled on the yellow foam. Socks, microwaves, ancients pieces of useless cars, food packages lay stranded on the concrete, until waves picked them up again.
She had been here once before, as a teenager. She and some other girls from the top science set had been given permission to spend the afternoon collecting samples for a project they were doing in Ecology, looking at ways in which ocean salinity levels could be adjusted. They needed a sample of local sea water.
A memory came back to her that had affected her deeply. What had made most impression was not the sea water. She had been staring at the shop fronts, fascinated by the squalor, and noticed a techy leaving a strip club. He was still zipping up his trousers, the fat on his belly and neck wobbled uncontrollably as his t-shirt rode up while he had a coughing fit. She remembered her youthful outraged revulsion. Until that point her ideas about sex had been uncomplicated. They were taught from when they were very young that sex was natural: a healthy way to get pleasure. At the Academy they had been allowed to watch porn: digitally finessed celebs of various genders grasping, sucking, coming. The clips at first made her feel odd: curious and afraid. Other girls whispered and giggled. But, for all of them, the strangeness quickly wore off. Sex became what it was: an animal function, which could be exploited for pleasure. Something to approach creatively but safely, with protection, in the appropriate setting. But the sight of that ugly techy had disturbed her young mind. Why did he engage in sex? What did he look like when he came? Reproduction was not the point. Trained techies bore babies. But the sight of him had made her question the beauty of non-reproductive sex. Why do it at all? Who would ever do it with him? Those obscure questions resurfaced now.
She also remembered that she had looked out into the distance while collecting the water samples. She remembered that seeing nothing, apart from her screen, the brown sky and the waves, had made her long to run back to the Academy. The other girls had also seemed keen to get away, so no one wasted any time on the way home.
Now she looked out to sea again. It was boring. The expanse of greenish yellow water made her conscious how small she was. She allowed herself sadness. She wanted to swim in her emotion. Where was he now?
She took out the notes and pretended to cough into them. ‘S99, 769 the Front’. This was definitely the Front – the last street on The Edge. Where were the numbers on the buildings? She was afraid to stand still and search for them. She kept going, not wanting to seem lost: that would look strange and could prompt an attack from a techy, though attacks were rare, as the guards showed techies no mercy. What could easily happen, though, would be techies noticing her tight leggings and leering, laughing, studying her bottom. She wanted to avoid such humiliation on her last day at home.
She threw quick glances at the buildings trying to spot numbers. A few were visible, painted long ago. Inner-City signs were digital and changed with the weather, the time of day and who happened to be passing. Painted numbers were hard to read. She was sweating and coughing, though the air here was gentler than in the centre. She noticed 640 above an ofie, shortly after 643 above a kebab bar. She started to count the shops walking more slowly, so she didn’t miss any. She spotted 720. Her hands trembled. She straightened herself and kept going until what had to be the correct building stood across the tram tracks from her. The windows were covered with ancient metal sheets pulled down years before by some techy, to protect the outlet at night. Thick layers of rust now welded the shutters in place. Animals had spread curry smeared food packets in the street outside. Giant seagulls fought over them. The bricks were stained with urine and something blacker. She hesitated.
But she couldn’t just stand there. And she couldn’t return to the centre without knowing why he had sent her here. She crossed. She would certainly attract attention. Guards could pick her up at any moment and take her back for a psychological assessment.
As she set foot on the other side, a shadow moved across the edge of her vision, obscured by the screen. A hand touched her. She turned around, preparing to be interrogated. In front of her stood a tiny old woman, smiling, wearing a dirty orange techy’s uniform. She led Tuesday inside. The room was dimly lit by small dusty beams of sunlight. Posters on the wall showed faded people with bright teeth and old fashioned brushes. There were two leather sofas with springs exposed. On a low table were piles of magazines, their flimsy pages had been shredded by generations of rodents for nests. Tuesday could still make out an image of a sleek man and woman laughing, holding up an over-dressed infant to the camera: possibly even their own – together! Sudden banging outside made her jump.
‘It’s ok it’s just the gulls.’
The tiny woman’s fine features indicated that she possessed a percentage of Asiatic DNA. Her thick skin was intricately wrinkled: she looked like an apple Tuesday had once seen on a hospital greenhouse tree in winter, forgotten, withered on the branch. Tuesday made herself smile.
‘Come this way.’
The woman turned and walked through a doorway. She moved quickly. Tuesday followed. They turned into a room totally flooded with sunlight. There was a broken glass ceiling. A bird’s nest rested on the few remaining panes. Bird shit had dripped on to the floor beneath. A long chair with a reclining back was pushed against the wall on the other side, away from the mess. Beside it on a steel table were carefully arranged antique dental instruments. Tuesday studied them with an experienced eye.
‘Don’t worry I trained as a dental technician. The sterilizer works: we have a generator.’
‘What are you planning to do to me?’
‘This won’t hurt.’
‘Just lie down.’
Why should she? The frail old techy couldn’t hurt her. She could easily escape with a little force. But she couldn’t. Any disturbance would be investigated. Her DNA would be traced. She would be assessed and probably diagnosed as deranged. She was even beginning to doubt her own mental health. And any psychological assessment carried with it the threat of relocation; in the most extreme cases it meant transfer to a deranged ward.
‘What are you going to do to me?’
The tiny woman paused, ‘Green did send you?’ Tuesday’s fright had made the woman begin to worry that she had dragged the wrong one in.
‘Yes.’ Hearing Green’s name weakened Tuesday’s suspicion. She felt a sudden urge to comfort the little old techy – to take away her fear.
‘Lie back and think of something that makes you very happy.’
She got into the chair and focused on her screen – sweaty professionals lifting weights, drinking energy drinks. Dancing all night…she looked up at the underside of the nest and listened to the skreek-ing of seagull chicks.
‘Open wide. You will just feel a tiny prick.’
A sharp jabbing needle entered her upper left gum. She jerked her head away. She would have sworn, but there were no obscenities in her professional dialect.
‘Sorry sweetie you need a local anaesthetic and we don’t have the latest kit.’
‘I consume no sugar and use a laser cleaning system. Professionals receive free dental cover anyway.’ She gave up.
‘This won’t take long.’
Tuesday looked at the equipment in fear. The old woman said nothing: clearly worried about security. Any conversation could, in theory, be recorded by the chip. Understanding this with horror, Tuesday decided that, sometimes, it is best to hide from the authorities. Part of this new thought was knowing how difficult it is to hide anywhere. She felt terribly helpless, like a lame animal who smells a predator.
The dentist worked on the numbed left side of her mouth. Tuesday felt scraping. The nimble fingers attached something to her molar and screwed it tight. They began to pull. It was hard to understand how a small ageing person could exert such force. Tuesday began to worry that some other parts of her might come away with the tooth. She remembered how close grey matter is to the roof of the mouth. She wailed.
‘Keep your mouth open wide! And for goodness sake, sweetie, shush!’
Tuesday closed her eyes. At last, the pulling stopped. She opened her eyes to see her own tooth, forked and dripping gore, lifted aloft. She sensed a gaping bloody chasm where it had been but did not dare explore it with her tongue.
Her tormentor beamed, neatly flipped the tooth around and held it up to inspect the chewing side.
‘There’s the blighter.’
Was that an outdated dental term? Tuesday watched the dentist collect a tiny pointed probe from the table and a pair of tweezers. She forced the probe deep inside the tooth and twisted. Parts came away. She then inserted the tweezers and pulled out a metal tube the size of a grain of rice. The tiny dentist sang happily to herself as she placed the tooth into a waiting dish. Then she put the tube into a bag and showed it to Tuesday. Tuesday looked at her chip. It seemed that a part of her had been removed, though her screen and audio were still playing, (her eye and ear connected via Wi-Fi). Sun streamed through the open ceiling. The chip gleamed. Tuesday remembered that they had all been put to sleep by nursery mothers before their first trip to the dentists, after they grew the adult molars. She felt a vague sense of betrayal remembering how they had reassured her.
There was a lamp attached to the table and a thick circular magnifying lens. The dentist inspected the chip under the lens, murmured to herself, drew paper and pen from an inside pocket and began to write. Tuesday was curious – she had never seen anyone write with a pen.
She passed Tuesday a scrap of paper, which read: ‘I have the code. When the time comes, just type this code into your palm, followed by your ID number and then these four extra digits. Remember, we must not deactivate until we have been contacted in writing by another void detailing the time and place, mentioning the code word ‘silentseagull’. Mass deactivation is the only possible solution. And the silence will be worth the wait. Believe me sweetie…’ Beneath these words were the magic numbers.
In her distress and confusion, Tuesday followed these instructions immediately, though she was supposed to just memorise the numbers. The dentist was visibly shocked and distressed; true voids did not behave recklessly. For Tuesday, the room went blank. She could still see: her eyes told her that she was in the same place. She coughed to make sure that she could still hear. But, everything was suddenly utterly quiet. She did not like the silence. Her screen and her audio had simultaneously stopped.
Half an hour later, she walked shakily back to the Edge Train Hub. Running her tongue around and around a bloody wodge of stuff the dentist had used to stem the blood. Anaesthetic and shock made her dizzy. She was confused by perceiving a full field of vision. The sky was immense!
She was in danger. A guard could spot her and pick her up for intoxication.
Hidden inside her sleeve, carefully wrapped, was a new false tooth, which contained her old chip. The false tooth could be slotted in, or removed, later that same day: once the wound had partially healed. In the meantime, the chip would transmit to her eye and ear anyway from close range. The dentist had urged her to reactivate immediately, but she had run away before reactivating it. The note with the necessary codes was crumpled inside her fist, along with Green’s letters.
Reacting to Tuesday’s foolish behaviour, the dentist had written more instructions on a second piece of paper, which she had then destroyed. She wrote that Tuesday ‘simply must reactivate the chip for cover’ and reassured her that ‘when the day came’ she could ‘throw it into the sea where its signal will be lost forever.’ With a reverential expression on her face, the dentist had added ‘we are the Void and we fight for silence.’ But Tuesday didn’t understand and couldn’t see why anyone would ever want to throw their chip into the sea. Without replying, or doing as she was told, she had bolted.
She paused, struggling to focus her naked right eye. She took one last look at the waves. An emptiness faced her that she had always known, but never been forced to inhabit before now. She could hear mocking seagull’s cries. Rusted bits of buildings, almost submerged by high tide, glittered: oblivious to the waves that were gradually grinding them down into meaningless sand. She turned away and walked – as steadily as she could – to the hub, trying to focus on the tasks she had to complete before her relocation.