The tiles, in unmarked uniform antiseptic whiteness covering the floors and walls, added to the cold of the eyes behind the monitor. Alicia Sanz stepped to the floor, rapidly pulling on her dress and blouse partly to ward off the chill, partly to cover threadbare underwear. Hands guided her into a chair opposite those eyes, now part of a dark-haired face regarding her coolly, dispassionately. Alicia fancied him to be her grandson matured, a valued employee, a face otherwise kind and gentle. The soft whine of the supervising AI brought her back.
“Do you understand what you have done? Why you are here?”
“Oh yes, quite.” smoothing an errant crease from her dress.
“And you understand the rights you have, the cautions we have explained?” the AI tilted its head to one side.
Outlined against the room’s only decorations, a red and yellow flag and the photograph below, she studied it briefly. She’d always felt in awe of these artificial people, more so now she was closer. No wonder the world was the way it was.
“Yes thank you, perfectly.”
A slot on the table deposited two pages in front of the eyes. He studied the pages carefully, one filled with text, the other a da Vinci figure with blotches on the abdomen, thigh, chest. Sighing gently, he positioned the pages in front of her.
“Perhaps if we talk this through first Mrs San —”
“My apologies,” with a short nod of the head “let us talk through it first Ms Sanz and then to the formal statement. Tell me, what made you do this?”
A gentle nudge woke Alicia from broken sleep. It was still dark, the sound of mist rain on the plastic roof announcing another cold, gloomy day. She sat up, seeing David smiling at her, motioning to the front of the room. Pulling back the thin blanket she emerged fully clothed, made her way to the wash basin and tried to soak the tiredness from her face. She took the cup David had prepared her and drank deeply.
She watched him, bent over his books on the far side of the room under the solitary light. Too much of Louis in him, there were times it seemed as if her son was still alive, eleven and growing into the man she was proud of. Louis deserved better than to be cut down in his prime, never to face the challenges of fatherhood or see his son grow. David too deserved better, more than a one room shack shared with an old woman, the same food and not much of it, the empty promise of a normal life. Not that he complained or fretted, no, she knew that would come later as he started to realize just how steeply the deck was stacked against him.
She shrugged on her plastic mac, tucking her grey hair under the hood as she shuffled across, bending to kiss him on the top of his head.
“Study hard buddy, I’m proud of you.” Not that she needed to remind him, she knew when she returned fourteen hours from now she would find him here, bent over his books, the day’s solitary meal bubbling on the fire.
Eyes fixed on the book before him he reached back, gently squeezing her hand. “I know and I will. Love you too gran.”
Holding clean shoes tightly in her plastic bag she picked her way down the shattered streets trying to avoid the deepest rain filled holes. She knew it was futile, the oil slicked bow waves from chauffeured augmenteds lapping at her, but she had to try. They would not let her near the house if she was soaked through so she clutched the bag tighter, wrapped her mac closer and continued on. The bus stop was only five minutes away.
She clambered aboard, elbowing her way through the crowded aisle to a large woman, pink jellyfish–like occupying two seats. A smile, a wave and Alicia settled herself down, nestled between the armrest and the comforting mound of flesh. She tipped her hood back sending a cascade down the back of the seat. Victoria was a saint as far as Alicia was concerned, with a heart and soul as broad as her hips.
“Nice weather for ducks dearie.” It was always nice weather for ducks as far as Victoria knew, the ever-present drizzle confirming her preconception.
“Washing won’t dry for sure.” Alicia responded as the long-established pattern required. Victoria was dressed differently today. Instead of the plain utilitarian blue that her job required she sported a loose pink dress, sneakers and a bright green beret. A small clutch bag at her feet and a hint of makeup separated her from other days.
Victoria caught Alicia’s eyes wandering. “I’m not going in today, not for a few days.” smiling, adjusting the beret. “I’ll be away for a week or so.”
Alicia raised one eyebrow. Neither of them, no one on the bus or their district had enough money to properly clothe or feed themselves, never mind take a vacation. Although intrigued she could not bring herself to ask, upbringing fighting desire. She needn’t have worried, Victoria had no qualms sharing.
“It’s a job actually,” she whispered in Alicia’s ear “a good one, a day in hospital, a trip, and that’s it.”
“What do you have to do?”
“Nothing really, just go, a few simple things.” She bent her head conspiratorially. “I really need this Alicia, Ben’s health is not good and this will be enough to fix it.”
“You seem worried.”
She smiled unconvincingly. “Oh no, just a few travel jitters, I’ve never been out of Irvine in my life.” She shifted, her stop coming up. Reaching into her bag she pulled out a greasy corner of paper and a pencil stub, scrawling on it then thrusting it into Alicia’s shoe bag.
“If you need some extra, and quietly, go here dearie.” With that she stepped into the aisle and out of the bus.
Alicia shook off her hood and mac, carefully placing them in the plastic bag with her street shoes. A final check to make sure her hair was correctly tied back and the run in her stockings faced inwards not outwards, she stepped across the doorstep into the servants’ entry. She stood silently with the others as the lady of the house inspected them in minute detail. She stopped and straightened Alicia’s collar, continuing her instructions.
“… so it is important you keep yourselves correctly dressed and silent today of all days. My husband will be tied up in the reception room all day so you should not see the AI, but if you do keep a respectful distance, do not speak unless spoken to and under no circumstances are you to look them in the eye.” She turned to face the small assembly.
“Remember that the AIs do not share the same relaxed attitudes to norms that we do. Alicia I will need you for a few extra hours tonight.”
Alicia neither saw nor heard anyone for the next twelve hours, the sound of the ‘copter lifting off announcing the AI’s departure. She cleaned and tidied the reception room, being careful to leave everything in its place, clear and accounted for. The few extra hours were draining but welcome, a new book for David, maybe stockings for herself. The lady accompanied her to the garage, placing a small box in her free hand.
“Thank you for the extra hours. I’ve put the extra payment in there, together with a few remnants from lunch and dinner.”
“Thank you Ma’am.”
“How is that boy of yours, Derek? Studying hard?”
“Well thank you Ma’am, David is doing well.”
“I’m glad.” She looked around absent mindedly, then called into the garage. “Alfonse? Alfonse!”
A short man emerged. “Ma’am?”
“Please take Alicia home, she will tell you where it is.”
She had never travelled in a private car before. Alicia sat in the front fiddling with the air-conditioning, the audio-visual system, everything. She particularly liked the heated reclining massage chairs, more so when Alfonse set the heating at an appropriate level and let the car drive itself.
“They must live as kings! I know the house but this is wonderful.”
Alfonse laughed. “You should see the ‘copter. But it’s nothing you know,” waving his hand around the interior “yes this is money, the augmenteds’ reward, but even this is just crumbs from the AIs’ table.”
“Even so, to own things like this! It’s beyond me, well beyond an old cleaning lady, but my grandson David’s a smart boy, maybe one day he can have all this.”
“If only it were so. It Is not for the likes of us to own these things.”
“But you at least have a room on the grounds.”
“So I am always available, cheaper than a robobutler and no employment laws to bother.” He took her hand in his, their varicose veins a purple patchwork quilt on calloused wrinkled parchment. “To work hard, to be smart is not enough. Only the augmented advance, only to them do the AIs allow money, power, influence and only then as much as they see fit. But,” as the car came to a lopsided, rain drenched halt outside her shack “even a gilded cage is still a cage.”
“Have you ever visited the People’s Republic before Ms Sanz?”
“No, this is my first trip abroad, first time in an airplane.”
“And you can read English?”
“Yes, of course.”
“And you listened to the warnings, read the immigration information in the seat?”
“Yes, all of it.”
The AI leant forward, tapping the page with a slender finger. “At these places we have found the things I have listed. I would like you to read through the list and see if it is correct.”
Alicia read slowly, carefully, one finger on the lines of text on the left, one finger close to the AI’s on the right as it moved around the page. She sat a little more upright, paid closer attention. It was a fine looking artificial person, all clean and fresh smelling, it would not at all do to be inaccurate so she took her time.
She looked up when finished. “It seems all right, it is what they said it would be, although the writing next to the English I don’t understand.”
“They are my notes, an index of sorts. Now, what you were going to do once here?”
David was exactly where she had left him, hunched over books in the corner. The smell of thin cabbage and pea soup greeted her, warmth of the stove battling the cold that stole in with her. They hugged then sat on the edge of her bed bowls in hand, Alicias’ package between them. She opened it revealing ham and rye sandwiches, dunking them into the soup sucking out every last morsel of flavour until, reluctantly but satisfied, swallowing. She leant back against the wall drowsy, David’s head on her shoulder.
“One day I’m going to have meat every week, and you will too.”
“No,” sitting up and reaching in his pocket “I mean it. I’m going to get this one day.” putting a torn page from a magazine in her hands.
It was an augmentation service ad. All the trappings of success clearly and cleverly laid out around a young man who – as the ad boldly proclaimed – had been augmented. The price was breathtaking, easily more than she would earn in years. Too far out of reach to be practical, too close not to fuel frustration. She hugged David, handed it back to him.
“Always dream buddy, it’s still the land of opportunity. One day, who knows?”
“It’s no dream gran, it’s going to happen. A warm house, nice food, new clothes, one day gran, one day.” as he trailed off to sleep.
She held him gently, rocking as she silently wept.
The bus was colder now with winter coming on, shorter days with constant drizzle, no Victoria to keep her warm, fraying cardigan letting the wind from broken windows clutch at her. She could feel a cold coming on. For the first time in ages she felt old, could hear the years calling her.
She reached into her plastic bag for a tissue, coming up instead with a greasy shred of forgotten paper. She stared at the number, felt for the coin in her cardigan pocket. Hesitating only briefly she stood, alighted at the next stop and made two calls.
It was like Victoria said, simple and easy. ‘Of course she could.’ they’d said and they’d come round, picked her up straight away. They’d even called the lady, made excuses for her, arranged a replacement. They were nice boys Alicia thought, nice boys.
They would pay her enough, oh yes more than enough and after she told them why they offered her more, if she could manage it. Of course, why not, the years of gravity fighting her body had to be of some use surely. And half now and half when back? ‘No problem, none at all.’ they could even take her where she needed to go, take her home too if she liked. Very nice boys Alicia thought, considerate boys.
Alicia sat on the edge of the bed with David in the early morning. She’d had enough left over for a new dress and blouse, shoes and food. She felt younger again, blue ankle length dress, crocheted shawl, closed in shoes. It would not be right to travel in her work clothes. She kissed David on the head.
“It’s only a week and a bit buddy, food is there and you’ll be fine. They will come for you today, home by evening. It will all be fine.”
David looked up, beaming. “Thank you gran, I —”
“Shssh. Just make sure you relax, tell me all about it when I get back.” She moved to the door, looked back. “All you have to worry about is what color the house will be.”
She finished reading the formal statement and pressed her thumb onto the corner of the page.
“It is all correct?” the AI intoned.
The AI stood, retrieved the statement. “The officer will take care of processing.”
The eyes took a pair of handcuffs from the wall and approached her. “Do I really need to use these?” he asked apologetically. “Will you give me any trouble?”
Alicia stood, straightened her dress and smiled. “I will be fine, no trouble. You don’t have to use them if you like.”
Flanked by a medical orderly and her assistant they exited the room, walking down a windowless corridor towards a pair of glass doors.
“First thing we need to do is get those extra organs out of you, fix the damage they may have done.” The eyes saddened, it was like taking his mother to prison. An otherwise nice old lady, but for this one thing. “They do a lot of these, you’ll be fine.”
“Recovery, then sentencing. You’ve co-operated and been open, so that will help. The AIs take a dim view of anything else.”
“Well, there’s no point really, what’s done is done.”
They walked in silence, the only sounds shoes on tile, the air conditioners’ hum.
“So how much did they promise you again?”
She told him.
It wasn’t much. Two, perhaps three months wages for ten to twenty years in prison. He couldn’t understand it, he never could reconcile risk to reward. They all knew they’d be caught eventually, the authorities or damage to their bodies catching up with them. He stopped, looked searchingly at her.
“Was it worth it?”
Alicia looked back steadily, without hesitation.
“Oh yes, definitely.”