An essay by Hester Ninetrees, as provided by Deborah Walker
Art by Shannon Legler
I hadn’t mentioned my approaching birthday to my children. I guess I was in denial. So it must have been a shock when the police turned up at our home. They both tuned out of the data stream immediately.
“Mum, what’s happening?” asked Dinah. Dinah … I wonder if she misses me.
I didn’t know what to say. So I just said it. “I’m fifty today.”
“No!” Dinah collapsed onto the settee.
Pete’s reaction was slower. He’s already showing signs of the brain deterioration that took his father. Pete would not embarrass his children by living too long.
“No … Ma …”
I patted him on the cheek. “It’s okay, Pete. Don’t you worry about it. You go back to your show.”
“Come along ma’am,” said one of the officers. They both looked embarrassed. It was an unpleasant duty for them.
I reached for my handbag. I looked at Dinah and Pete. They’d be okay without me. The house would run smoothly, the food would arrive, the machines would keep the rooms nice and clean. A thought occurred to me, “Will there be data streams under the sea?”
“Of course, ma’am.”
That was a relief. I’d been watching Sunrise Palace for fifty years. I wouldn’t want to miss an episode.
We bathe in artificial light in the Aqua Institution. The walls are thick, made of dense, strange metal. Trevor Bimble says the machines mine the metal from asteroids. No Earth-found compound could withstand the enormous pressure down here. The underwater currents knock against the walls of our home. I worried at first that it wasn’t safe, but after a month I got used to it. You get used to everything, eventually.
I’m expected to work down here. Work! Me! It’s all very strange.
We’re allowed four hours a day of data stream, so I can still watch Sunrise Palace, but only in the attenuated version. A punishment, I guess, for growing old or for being mad.
I work in the factory. The people who are like me, the old ones, cluster together. This is a facility for the insane and for the old. I never expected to be here. I never expected to pass my fiftieth birthday. Who does? Maybe only one person in a hundred thousand, certainly nobody in my family had ever done such a careless thing.
Mickey, who’s fifty-five, works beside me. He’s been certified sane, but I’m not so sure. There’s something about the light here, working constantly under fluorescent lighting that might drive a person mad.
Mickey keeps up a monologue while we work, “I shouldn’t be here. Out of sight out of mind. The other people don’t want to see us. We’re a waste of space. We make everyone uncomfortable. So, they send us out here, under the sea. Make us live in these metallic snow globes. Like we don’t deserve to feel the sunshine. Natural light is not a right, it’s a privilege, and it’s slipped out of our fingers. We’re the fluorescent people. We deserve it, but every now and again the machines make a mistake. I’m not mad, you know, Hester.”
“No,” I say patiently. “You’re not mad, Mickey. You’re just old, like me.”
I wonder what my children are doing. Are they working for my release? Are they petitioning the government for an exception? I don’t know what grounds they’d give. I was never exceptional. I just did what everyone else did: had children and enjoyed myself watching Sunrise Palace. I think that Dinah will be trying. Poor Pete wouldn’t be able to manage anything like that.
A stream of data activates my computer screen. I work on input analysis. There’s so much data to be collated. It’s surprising how much actual human input is needed to refine and interpret the data. I’d always assumed that the machines did everything. I didn’t realise that data was refined by the mad and the old here under the sea. Live and learn, eh?
To read the rest of this story, check out the Mad Scientist Journal: Summer 2014 collection.
Hester Ninetrees led an exemplary life, until her unfortunate fiftieth birthday when she was relocated to the thirty-third Aqua Institution. Following her erroneous release, Mrs Ninetrees travelled through all seventeen districts, leaving in her wake a trail of civil disobedience. Her crimes have been judged. Machine Direction alpha-red dictates Hester Ninetrees be subject to capture with extreme prejudice. Machine Direction alpha-red-chi dictates that her body be delivered to the Human Neural Institute for examination. Order will be restored.
Deborah Walker grew up in the most English town in the country, but she soon high-tailed it down to London, where she now lives with her partner, Chris, and her two young children. Find Deborah in the British Museum trawling the past for future inspiration or on her blog: http://deborahwalkersbibliography.blogspot.com/ Her stories have appeared in Nature’s Futures, Cosmos, Daily Science Fiction, and The Year’s Best SF 18.
For more information about Shannon Legler, visit her site at http://lendmeyourbones.tumblr.
This story originally appeared in M-Brane #15 in 2010.