Her lithe silhouette cloaked in a large man’s overcoat, Celeste approached the crumbling stone gateway warily, the heavy bag shifting on her hip with each step. She drew back a sleeve to expose her pale forearm, where a grid of spidery lines and minute lights glimmered faintly. Checking the empty street behind, the blank industrial buildings to either side of her, she stepped forward. A red pinprick of light appeared under her skin. She moved on with measured strides until the gate loomed over her, and stopped. A piercing screaming filled the air. Grimacing with pain, she clapped hands over her ears as her eyes began streaming. Her legs buckled and she crumpled to the pavement.
“Unauthorised perimeter proximity.”
Cocooned in a surveillance pod, the security dispatcher watched the convulsing body on the curved screen dwarfing him with statistical analyses, scrolling text feeds and surveillance video.
“Target neutralized. Identifying…” he crooned. A murmur of vocal cadences leaked from the faint tracery of integrated circuits and lights in the shell of his ear. His pudgy finger delicately moved luminous graphics as he cross-referenced a data tag against the body beneath the stone archway. He hesitated, squinting to inspect something on the screen, and grunted with surprise.
Celeste awoke with fright.
Clammy with sweat, gasping desperately for breath, she surveyed her surroundings: dim light sifting through the full length curtains, inert bedroom furniture, pale curlicue forms of cornicing round the high ceiling. Home. She struggled to free an arm from the twisted bedclothes and clawed at her pyjama sleeve – no red light glowed from her sub-dermal interface. But a shadow of the nightmare hung over her: something unsaid, and the creased brow of the dispatcher, interrupted by her abrupt return to wakefulness. She brooded on that unknown pale face in her dreams as she dressed, wondering what could possibly have surprised him.
Celeste paused tentatively on the threshold of the living room. Slouched on the sofa, feet on the coffee table with a beer in hand, Brian stared at the football and ignored her. The ceiling light was off. Celeste’s eyes wandered from the TV to the cheap brass chandelier, recalling absently that one of the bulbs had gone. The thought had lodged itself in her memory hours before when the light was on, and Brian stood beneath it.
“It’s your duty!” he had raged.
The chandelier’s incandescent bulbs had made a skull of his face, eyes gleaming from penumbral sockets above his civil servant’s uniform of dark suit, white shirt, flattened hair. In the stunned silence Brian’s eyes darted to the wall. Celeste knew he was worried the neighbours would hear him shouting. He eased, the momentary panic slipping away to join the other parasitic fears trapped behind his mild façade.
The brass chandelier had been Celeste’s choice, as had the apartment. First floor in an old sandstone building scarred by two centuries of existence, its age and solidity were comforting like her vintage clothes, though they embarrassed Brian in public, and privately infuriated him. He had wanted a modern glass cube, airtight and exposed. There had been a push-pull, fractious testing and adjusting between them. And when he agreed to hear her reasoning Brian remained engrossed in his palmtop, murmuring and susurrating to himself, finally mumbling, “Wrong side of town.”
He had been checking surveys and maps, critically evaluating her choice. For once Celeste insisted and finally, reluctantly, Brian agreed. The surge of gratitude she had felt then still rankled.
They bought the apartment, and were shocked by its condition when emptied of furniture, personal effects, another life. Sickly tongues of wallpaper hung from the walls, ancient carpets mouldered underfoot and the torpid air was stale with death. Now Brian insisted, that they renovate, modernize, fill voids and interstices with integrated tech. So their home became a hybrid, a period home laced with modern functionality, an odd, disjointed marriage of form and function.
“It’s your duty,” he hissed.
“Is that the official corporate line?” Celeste replied coolly.
“If you ever talked like that outside…” he warned.
“What? You’d report me?”
“I couldn’t help you.” He straightened, adjusted his jacket, adopting a bearing, a familiar cue signaling that he was taking charge, and was defusing the situation.
It stoked a smouldering fire within Celeste. She wanted to let it rage, to scream and shout with fury, become the destroyer incarnate and tear down the walls, to burn and consume everything they had built and afterwards collapse with sated relief. Instead, she moved to the window and stared at the crowds below. It was all so mundane and familiar; the perpetual return to the hidden and buried, all that was unspoken between them.
“Why?” she said, turning back to him.
“What?” The question caught him off guard.
“Why do you want it?”
”Because I’m ready,” he said.
“But why?” she pressed. “What would it mean to you?”
“I want a child. Is that so strange?”
“I need something more.”
“More than a child, than a family?”
“More from you.”
Brian lurched forwards, moving in close to hold Celeste’s arm gently, his thumb absently caressing her. “I want us to have a child,” he said quietly.
Celeste shook her head in frustration. “But I don’t want one with you.” She said it offhand, regretting it instantly.
Brian turned away, shocked.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled, instinctively reaching out to him, then stopped, and pulled her hand away.
“Isn’t it better not to… lie anymore,” she ventured.
“Lie anymore?” Brian turned. “But, but… we’re married,” he said. “Isn’t it better to stop tormenting each other?”
“But…” he floundered. He paced nervously then stopped and looked at her in desperation. “But how will this look?”
Celeste stumbled away, guts churning, head spinning. She shouldn’t have been surprised, but was. Brian hounded her into the hallway.
“Where are you going?” he demanded.
“Sleep,” she mumbled, waving him away, retreating to the bedroom, closing the door between them.
Celeste gazed down at him, absorbed in the football match, oblivious to her, and knew that sleep – fitful and filled with unnerving dreams – offered no escape from the silent weight between them. Forcing shoes on her feet, grabbing coat and shoulder bag she left the apartment, slamming the front door with vigour. She clung to its brass handle in the cool silence of the stairwell, breathing slowly, staring at the door’s reflective black gloss, its brass fixtures. She remembered all that she – they – had created together. Could a child bridge the abyss between them, bring them close again? Had they ever been close? She fled down the steps to lose herself in the pavement’s anonymous flow.
Evening. Its deepening velvet backdrop made visible the technology woven round smog-grimed neoclassical architecture. Diaphanous growths clinging to pillars, plinths, porticos and baronial flourishes, at night their near-transparent structures solidified, pulsing with internal workings that glittered sharply like myriad gemstones or diffuse, blushed faintly. Despite filtering the polluted air to sustain life, these tech additions saddened Celeste, as if the city’s venerable buildings had burst their seams and displayed with shame their spilled guts. Relishing the breeze stirring air sluggish with the day’s residual heat, Celeste’s familiar musings were eclipsed by a more persistent, pernicious problem, its intensity dialed up: should she leave Brian?
Whenever she was on the cusp of deciding the issue she would pull back, finding reason to stay in something Brian had said, some gesture or affectionate sign. A period of self-loathing inevitably followed, for clinging to the redundant, toxic sense of security he represented.
Celeste startled at the loud whoop and blare of a City Officer. A tourist had illegally stepped into the road; shaken, he hurried across with the green light.
“Is there a problem?” The City Officer slid along the pavement to Celeste standing immobile at the pedestrian crossing. “Do you have a problem?”
“No. No problem,” Celeste replied. “My mistake.”
“Your mistake,” echoed the Officer, recording her admission in its artificial head.
Celeste worked nightshifts in the financial district. Chemical alteration had suppressed her natural diurnal rhythms reducing the adverse physiological effects of night working. A human cog in the ceaseless synchronic global marketplace, she worked with a quantum computer reconciling international deals, seeking rogue trades, incomplete deals, unsettled accounts. While the computer could easily identify and deal with these issues, regulations required human judgement in the final analysis. Celeste was an organic component in the accounting information system, the first filter, her dynamic auditing reliant upon years of accountancy training and experience, together with ‘soft’ abilities identified through a barrage of tests, interviews and observations: her intuition, instinct, and a shading of synaesthesia. Apart from the computer developers and technicians, Celeste was the only human operative in the computer’s process, integrating with it via her neural lace. A tiny rider on the vast computing power of the quantum machine, she felt a sense of freedom when in contact with it, her reach and powers vastly expanded beyond the confines of her meagre human body.
Drained after the night’s work, Celeste sat at the kitchen table with head bowed when Brian entered. He glanced from the empty cooker hob to the empty table, before moving to Celeste and laying a hand on the back of her neck. She shrugged him off.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his hand going tentatively to her shoulder. She didn’t react. He began working his palm, rubbing gently. ”I was wrong.”
With a sigh Celeste relaxed, slipping further into her tiredness. Her head lolled as she gave herself up to his massaging, and thick hair masked her face. Brian dipped into his trouser pocket and brought out something with a dull metallic gleam. Still massaging Celeste’s shoulder he brought his clenched hand over her exposed forearm. A green light blinked in reply beneath her pale skin. He returned the object into his pocket and affectionately nuzzled at Celeste’s neck. Roused, she turned and grabbed at his jacket and tie.
“Get out of this uniform,” she said, as they enacted a familiar route toward some mutual sexual relief.
“Housewife or holiday?”
Celeste turned from the window. Hunched awkwardly with his spine twisted the workman’s arms were lost inside a wall recess. Through the old building’s voids mice nibbled indiscriminately at new tech and old, sometimes darkening screens, silencing transmitted voices through the building. Celeste loved them for it. When sleep eluded her she would listen for any small sounds connecting her with these agents of nature.
“You a housewife or you off today?” he asked again. “I work nights.”
He withdrew a filthy paw from the recess to wave at her attire: men’s pyjamas and over-sized dressing gown, hair a tilted asymmetrical mass atop her crown.
Celeste took another chocolate biscuit from the pack, scooped humus from a tub with it and munched absently.
“My wife had funny cravings too,” the workman said amiably. Celeste frowned.
“Throws your body,” he said. “What does?”
“I’m not pregnant,” Celeste said quickly.
“Right.” He winked with a conspiratorial grin. Pulling out of the recess he elbowed its cover into place and wiped his hands briskly down his trouser fronts. “That’s me done, just need a signature.”
Celeste thumb-printed his grubby palmtop. “I’m not pregnant,” she insisted.
“Oh. Sorry,” the workman faltered. “Didn’t mean nothing by it.”
Later that afternoon Celeste bolted from bed and ran to the bathroom to vomit copiously. She slumped against the wall wiping drool from her chin, and checked her forearm. A small blue light glowed steadily. Rifling through bathroom cabinets she found the universal tester and set it for pregnancy. A blue marker confirmed positive.
“No-oo!” she moaned desperately.
Having checked the kit’s validity date, she checked her own circuitry calibration with the central system, and was dismayed when it was confirmed true, with negligible deviation. Dazed, she returned to the bedroom and stood in the corner, not knowing what else to do. Sliding down the wall she pushed the bedside cabinet away with her feet. Hands and bottom met floorboards.
She lifted a hand, staring with detached fascination at its palm thick with dust previously hidden by the cabinet.
“Celeste?” Brian called from hallway.
She couldn’t move. She listened to his voice call her throughout the apartment, moving further away before coming closer, until his footsteps stopped at their bedroom door.
“Oh, there you are.” He frowned.
Celeste got up hurriedly, displaying a palm as she passed him. “Dust,” she said.
He stared at the displaced cabinet. “I’ll sort it,” he called after her.
Brian didn’t do cleaning, Celeste thought absently as she entered the bathroom to wash her hands. The thought was gone as quickly as it had arisen.
At dinner Brian habitually, neurotically rearranged his food to ensure the plate’s contents always remained symmetrical. Celeste picked listlessly at her own plate.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Fine,” she said. The top light cast Brian’s eyes in shadow, Celeste was comforted that her hollow eyes would be too. “You?”
“Mm-hm,” Brian hummed happily, chewing vigorously. “No work tonight?”
“Feeling a little…” she paused. Brian shot a questioning look. “Under the weather. Might see the doctor.”
“Wait and see how you feel,” he suggested.
A disquieting intuition struck Celeste about Brian, surprising her. A tech designer ascending the managerial ranks he connected humans with technology, binding them to it. It was people like Brian ensnaring the city’s architecture with filters, conduits and optic cables, weaving operatives like her into cybernetic work shares. Wasn’t it possible that, maybe, he…?
She shook her head to dispel the notion.
Just as possible was nature, capable of slipping through man’s best endeavours to control it. Was this her body reminding the tech woven through limbs and organs who came first, who really rules, whose regenerative and reproductive powers are greatest?
Celeste dressed and went to work to avoid Brian. While merged with the computer her mind wandered absently when a thought – unsought, unannounced – hit her, fully formed, diamond-edged. It troubled her, for in one glimpse it illustrated her relationship with Brian: incomplete. Unreconciled.
Wavering, always threatening to tip.
Back home, Celeste worked quickly. Having made the necessary phone call she hurriedly threw clothes into her shoulder bag. Searching through the drawers in one of the antique hardwood cabinets she was hampered by a stiff bottom drawer. She tugged impatiently until it came free, leaping from its runners and clunking to the floor. Dropping to a knee to replace it Celeste stopped. She set the drawer down and slipped a hand into its void, bringing it out grey with dust. She poked her head up and peered over the top of the bed to the cabinet on Brian’s side of the bed.
The bottom drawer of Brian’s cabinet complained as she tugged it free.
Celeste bent over to peer into the shaded void where something gleamed. She retrieved a lozenge-shaped object. It nestled in her palm. It had no buttons or readout, and the line of its scuffed metallic curvature was uneven. The object was hand-milled, in a way only possible on the antique engineering machines Brian collected. Old school, lo-fi, and under the radar of any city audit trail, the casing doubtless created from discarded materials for the same reason. She turned it over and noticed her sub-dermal console brighten. She moved the device over her arm and a green light glowed beneath her skin, corresponding with a green blush on the surface of the object. She sought a plausible explanation for its existence in the apartment that didn’t include Brian, but could not conjure one. Then panic gripped Celeste, clawing at her throat: she wanted to fly away, to the other side of the planet.
A key scraped into the lock of the front door. Celeste scrambled up, kicked her bag under the bed and strode out.
Brian was in the corridor, standing tensed. “Why aren’t you at work?” he said.
Celeste held up the metallic object. “You could have hidden it better,” she said. He glanced at the object, and back to her. “I live here too, or did you forget that as well?”
“As well as what?” he said quietly.
“That I have a choice?” she gasped, before her surprise at his question swelled to outrage. “That I have a choice!” she shouted.
Brian looked away from her mask of fury. “We’ll talk about it tomorrow.” “We’ll talk about this now! You thought you could control my life with,
with a machine?”
“What difference does it make?” he said, still calm. “What difference?” Celeste faltered.
“I didn’t forget you have a choice, because you don’t,” he said. “The choices have all been made for you, like they’ve been made for all of us.”
His mocking face sent a chill through Celeste. She rushed to the bedroom, dragged her bag from under the bed and snatched up her coat. Brian was still standing in the hall as she passed him on her way to the door.
“I know who you phoned,” he said with assurance.
“That’s why you’re home.” She realised he was monitoring her, and knew also that she had no way of knowing how far his web extended about her actions.
“I know what you’re planning, and I won’t let you,” he hissed. “I’ll report you. You hear me, Celeste? I’ll report you!”
She knew he would, the moment she stepped out the door. When the city system picked up on the discrepancy resulting from an illegal abortion, in the absence of incriminating evidence it was reconciled as a miscarriage, from bleeding at home to time off work and a subdued and slow return to daily routines with medical consultation. But for that result the procedure had to remain secret. What other options were there?
She could run, away from him, and away from the city, but then what?
A thread of events unspooled before her mind’s eye, of Brian’s furious shout echoing after her feet clattering down the stairs, of sheltering between the National Gallery’s fluted columns searching the crowded plaza for the abortionist – a small, wary woman with billowing clothes and wild curly hair, Celeste imagined – who would spot the trap first and run, pursued by a city agent while Celeste on shaking legs ducked from cover to push blindly through the crowds, running despite knowing the walls would close in, that she would eventually, inevitably cross paths with security operatives and surveillance to be confirmed by facial recognition and her heat signature tracked with the background noise of copter-drones. Running through dank alleys, weaving between putrid dustbins, slipping on rot and effluent, she could shelter beneath tangled fire escapes and air conditioners to mask her flight from the narrow strips of sky above, running to the empty cobbled lanes and buckled pavements of the Old Industrial zone, weave between its brick warehouses and factories sprouting weeds from rooflines and collapsing gutters, past rusting padlocks guarding massive doors layered with paint and grime, and collapse against a wall, fighting for breath, only to hear the confident strike of heels on stone and to wait, exhausted, nauseous, for the inevitable. Doubled, trebled in volume, the footsteps echoing under a brick arch, booming closer and closer. And even if it were another solitary explorer of the fringes – a trim elderly man, for instance, surprised to see Celeste and striding on with just a brief nod – would she have the will to go on? The pulse of a motivating memory, from childhood perhaps, of being on a wide sand beach with her parents and brother somewhere beyond the city limits, drawing her on down the street toward an aged stone archway standing unguarded and without gates?
Simulated bells chimed the hour. Celeste reacted, moving for the front door. Brian gripped her arm tightly, painfully.
“I will scream,” she said. “I will shout for help.”
He wavered, his glance to the door betraying fearful thoughts racing around the neighbours whose lives surrounded theirs. Celeste slipped free, and ran from the flat.
A manager summoned Celeste from her silent commune with the quantum computer to a meeting room. Two innocuous security officers in cheap uniforms followed the legal interview procedure, a mundane formality during which Celeste confirmed that she was pregnant.
“How do you feel about that?” “I’m overjoyed,” she said.
“You haven’t contacted an abortionist?” asked the woman, hands clasped on the table between them. She scrutinised Celeste. The interview had revolved around this question several times, returning with wearying predictability as if to wear Celeste down to an inescapable confession. But Celeste faced the two agents with a new, unwavering calm and self- assurance.
“No,” she said. “Why would I?”
The agents glanced at one another. “We had a report,” said the man. “An anonymous report,” his colleague added quickly. “Nothing to worry about. Congratulations on your news.” “Thank you.” Celeste smiled warmly.
She had opened her feelings up to the quantum computer’s oceanic vastness. It knew the past, the train of events and causalities cumulatively adding up to her predicament. She felt the familiar directional pull; the computer offering no resistance, its currents and flows eased into alignment with her thoughts, spiralling, accelerating, and manifesting them until they coalesced and revolved around a single point. Collapsing waveform to point, from potentiality to the actuality, it instantaneously trailed its own unfolding history.
Wondering whose thoughts they were, hers or the computer’s, the answer pulsed into her mind: you know the answer, Celeste, you always have. They were her thoughts, emerging from a subconscious as vast as the universe, extended and amplified through the computer’s spaces and computations. She had the support and understanding which she had so futilely sought at home. It had been there all the time, and now guided Celeste with confidence and clarity to her own conclusion. She found balance away from her unbalanced life.
An open gateway, unguarded, its gates long-gone: that was her dream, but there was no such gate. There were no such security measures; what kept them all in place was more insidious, invisible, unwritten. And it was what also trapped her in a hollow marriage.
Why was it she kept running – from Brian, from their home, from her problems? The dream of running away was no solution; the problems, temporarily abated, still festered. The dream wasn’t a solution, but it contained the seeds of one. Brian had trapped her but Celeste could reconcile their imperfect relationship, and free herself.
Celeste returned home to confront Brian with his betrayal.
“I did what was right!” he cried, righteous and fearless.
“Which betrayal?” said Celeste. “That is what you should have said, what you should have asked me. Which betrayal of yours was I talking about?”
He surveyed her, calculating their relative positions, his next move.
“I haven’t done anything wrong. You, on the other hand…” Celeste let it sink in.
“What do you want?” he said.
“For you to leave.” “I can’t do that.”
“You can, and will. Things will look better for you if you run away from me and from your responsibilities to our child.”
“What’s the matter with you, have you gone insane?” his eyes popped with hatred.
“It’s better than the alternative, surely? A custodial sentence, public shame?”
His glowering eyes dropped to her shoulder bag. “It’s at work,” she said.
He had no means of accessing her workplace. Then it occurred to Celeste that she held a higher professional grade than him, and with it came a pang of sympathy; she wondered if his need to control her and put her down stemmed partly from this professional discrepancy. She dismissed the thought and her inner wavering, that familiar impulse which had countless times lead her away from this conclusive decision about their situation. A new horizon beckoned. Celeste had the confidence to maintain her resolve, watch him move out.
“You’d never cope,” he said, a whine tingeing his voice. “That’s the thing, I’ve realised I will. I’ll be fine.”
Celeste knew now with certainty that she was capable of raising a child, and would do it alone. She would teach their child to appreciate beaches and mice nibbling unseen at cables, to give it a childhood of innocence and honesty, free of deception, manipulation, fear and uncertainty.
By Torkjell Strømme from The United Kingdom