A story about freedom
By Kalin Ringkvist
During the night, something changed within Andil. Something emerged from the deep recesses of her soul, something she hadn’t known since she was a small child, something she had fought hard, like everyone else in the twenty-third century, to push back, to hide, something she had forgotten.
______ ______ ______
She awoke to the sound of soft music in her left ear. Her right earphone had fallen out in the night. Throwing the covers from her body, she dug around her bed, found it, and plugged it back in. For a moment she lay silently, enjoying the music.
Few people still bothered to listen to music. Andil could not think of any compositions created in the past fifty years. The No Vocals Act of 2189 caused numerous bankruptcies throughout the music industry. A few years later, a law passed, banning all speakers with a sound distance of more than fifteen meters, completely killing the industry. So now, the only legal music, was the stuff without words, and the only way a person could listen to it was through personal earphones. No one wanted to listen to someone else’s music, and lyrics to almost all songs at least mildly offended somebody, somewhere. The laws had fixed those problems.
Andil stepped out of bed and walked toward the closet, meaning to put on her winter uniform, but halfway there, she noticed something. She had done this a thousand times before—gotten out of bed, walked to her closet—and yet, it never felt like this. She looked down at her almost-naked body, then looked up at the camera unit on the wall, watching her. She couldn’t remember ever looking directly at the camera while dressed like this. There had always been a fear that some human eyes would see the image. Some perverted computer hacker getting into the law enforcement systems and peeping at her. Logically she knew it was next to impossible, but the fear still persisted. Probably everyone had it. But today it felt different. She smiled as the image of the strange maniac, drooling over his computer screen, came to her mind. Or maybe pe is disgusted by me, she thought. Too disgusted to look away, maybe.
Forgetting about her fictional pervert, a very strange and alien thought came to her mind: maybe I won’t get dressed just yet. Her mind stopped working for a few seconds as the idea that she could even think such a thing sunk in. Yes, yes, she thought. I’ll just step outside of my bedroom for a while, walk around the apartment. Nobody will see me, right? No, of course not. No one will see me, except the law enforcement cameras and they don’t count. Yes, yes, I think I’m going to do it. And she took a wary step away from her closet, toward the bedroom door. After pausing several seconds, she took another step, and they became easier with each that she took. Finally she reached the doorway and touched the activator pad, expecting it to demand that she put some clothes on first. Instead, it slid open without a sound. There was nothing illegal about walking around in one’s own apartment without wearing a uniform—just so long as nobody could see.
As she walked cautiously into the living room, she saw that the windows were all black. They weren’t normally like this, but of course, she didn’t normally wander around wearing nothing but underwear.
Standing silently in the middle of the room, she did several 360 degree turns, just to make sure no one could see. Then she plucked the earphones from her ears and set them on the coffee table. And she heard the sounds of the city: the streetcars forty stories below, a helicopter passing somewhere overhead. There were people out there.
This is idiocy! She thought suddenly, and nearly turned and bolted back to the bedroom to get dressed. But she stopped. No, no. Nobody can see me. If they could, they’d be the criminal in this situation, not me. There’s nothing illegal about wandering around your apartment like this. Few people do it, but there’s nothing wrong with it.
Maybe I should ask the computer to make the windows clear.
No no. Let’s take this one step at a time. She still had difficulty getting used to this.
Andil went to the dining room and programmed her breakfast into the food computer. Three minutes passed and her steaming hot cereal and grapefruit appeared in the dispenser. She ate silently. A tenseness grew in her stomach and she glanced over her shoulder several times, just to make sure no one could see her.
Stories of burglaries came to her mind. That was a common thing, a couple hundred years ago. People broke into houses to steal stuff. She still heard about someone burglarizing someone else every couple years. It comforted her a little to know that any person committing such a crime would be executed on the spot. It was the only crime deserving such a punishment. Even murderers were tolerated, given, at most, eighty to one hundred years imprisonment. An invasion of privacy was unacceptable.
Finishing her meal, Andil put the dishes in the disposal compartment and went back to the living room. She stood, the tenseness built to it’s maximum, and said, “Clear the windows, please.”
“You are improperly dressed,” said the unisexual computerized voice.
“What do you mean?” she retorted. “I have clothes on.”
“You are improperly dressed. Somebody might see you. Please put on a uniform. Then I can clear the windows.”
“Who’s going to see me? We’re forty stories up.”
“There are apartments across the street.”
“The street’s sixteen lanes wide!” She knew it was useless to argue, but Andil was having fun.
“Telescopic instruments can easily see that far.”
“So let them look. You’re looking at me.”
“I am a computer. I am not programmed to be offended by the human body, or to pass judgment on it. The windows will remain opaque until you put on sufficient clothing.”
Andil grumbled, turning toward the bedroom. “Computer’s like a mound of shit,” she murmured, almost silently. She did not mean it; secretly she felt relieved that the computer would not take her request.
“Using inappropriate language in a private area is a one-half credit fine. The funds have been deducted from your account.”
“A half credit?” Andil said.
“Using such language near another human is thirty credits,” the voice warned.
“A half credit? That’s nothing.”
“In my computerized opinion, a half credit is not nothing. A half credit is a half credit.”
Andil smiled and shook her head at the idiotic argument. “Okay, what if I put on a summer uniform? Would you clear the windows then?”
“But it isn’t summer. It is winter.”
“I know that,” Andil said. “But would you do it?”
“A summer uniform would be acceptable.”
“Thank you.” She continued toward her bedroom. She grinned widely, unable to help it. “Hey,” she said. “Do you want to know what I think a half credit is?”
“I would like to know,” the computer replied. “Your opinions are important.”
“In my human opinion,” she said, “a half credit is like a tiny little piece of shit.” And she burst into hysterical laughter.
______ ______ ______
Hundreds of people, all in identical blue, black, and white uniforms crowded the street on all sides. Each one had an artificial-fur-lined hood. Some wore the hoods over their heads, and some let them hang down their back. As Andil stared blankly out her apartment building door, she realized that the hoods were the only things that marked these people as individuals. If the temperature dropped, they would all be the same, like clones from a factory.
She set out, headed on her way toward work. It should have been a day like any other day, but something felt wrong. She saw the people as she walked, and they seemed like nothing more than automatons, methodically going about their daily business, not speaking to anyone for fear of offending, staring at the ground to avoid eye contact.
A vision of a naked body came to her mind. It ran through the crowds. It screamed such a cry of joy that Andil had never heard or imagined. They would look up then, wouldn’t they? Their mouths would drop open and they would stand and stare, forgetting about their routines. Then they’d talk about it with each other.
That’s absurd! she thought. People see the human body as being the most offensive thing on the planet. These innocent people would probably be too shocked to go on with their lives. It would be cruel.
But what if there’s someone out there who is so deranged that pe doesn’t care? Someone who can run naked through crowds of people and not worry about what they think of per? There must be someone like that somewhere. People used to do stuff like that hundreds of years ago, didn’t they? That would be the ultimate freedom, she thought, to be able to take off all your clothes and be seen be other people, and not care.
She shook her head at the absurd thoughts, and increased her pace.
She checked her watch. 9:43 AM, December 25, 2253.
The date didn’t hold any significance for her. The storefronts she passed did not display any reminders of the archaic holiday, once celebrated on this day. Showing things holiday-related to the general public had been outlawed as offensive. People could no longer remember the days of any specific celebrations, though a few could remember their own birthdays. New Years was simply the day that the year changed: otherwise meaningless.
Andil walked on, trying to slip back into her normal routine, but she found that she was moving further and further away. She tried to tell herself that she was just another face in the crowd, but instead found herself looking at the people and thinking, they’re all different from you. They’re all so different, and yet you can’t help being one of them.
______ ______ ______
She sat in her cubicle, trying to keep her mind on the job at hand. She was supposed to be drawing up plans for somebody’s garden, but the drafting program on the computer remained blank.
Andil checked her watch. Noon; almost lunch time. Maybe I could take off a few minutes early, she thought. I’m not getting anything done here.
Standing, she opened the door to her cubicle and locked it behind her. Three doors down, she stopped. This was Sil’s cubicle. Maybe I should ask per to eat with me today, she thought. But I’ve asked per almost five times this month. Pe hasn’t asked me nearly that many times. I wonder if pe feels as though pe’s being harassed.
The personal pronouns Andil used were derived from the word ‘person’. Use of the words ‘he’ and ‘she’ had been outlawed years ago, considered sexist. At this time, no one knew that such words had ever existed.
She almost turned away, but stopped. She was in the mood for some company.
A moment after she had rung the buzzer, Sil answered, calling from inside, “I welcome you to Sil’s office, drafting department.”
“Good morning Sil. This is Andil. I hope I am not disturbing you.”
“You aren’t disturbing me,” Sil replied. “Would you like to come in?”
“Thank you,” she said as she opened the door.
Sil stood up and moved out from behind the desk and offered a hand to Andil. The handshake was firm and precise. At the moment they made contact, Andil brought her eyes up to meet Sil’s. Proper etiquette demanded that eye contact be avoided until a conversation officially started, but maintained throughout a conversation.
“Would you like me to close the door, or do you prefer it open?” Andil asked.
“Whichever you prefer would be fine,” Sil replied. “Do you mind if I sit down?”
“That would be okay. I’ll leave the door open.”
Seating himself, Sil motioned toward the other chair in the room. “If you’d like to sit as well, please do.”
“To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit, Andil?” Sil asked.
“I wished to ask you if you would care to join me for lunch. If you have made prior engagements, I completely understand. It was just an idea.”
“I have not made any prior engagements, and I would enjoy dining with you,” Sil said, checking his watch. “It is a little early though, isn’t it?”
“I’m sorry,” Andil replied quickly. “I didn’t mean to disturb your work time—I’m so thoughtless. I can come back later if you wish.”
Sil paused a moment. “No. I can take off a few minutes early. I’ve had a fairly productive morning. Where would you like to go?”
She offered several restaurant suggestions, asked for his ideas. They quickly agreed on one.
They walked out of the office together, and Sil stopped to lock the door. Side by side they walked down the hall. At one point Sil looked down at her shoulder and noticed that it was less than fifteen centimeters from his. Not much of a gap. Carefully, so as not to let Andil notice, Sil slowly increased the distance. Being close to another human was very frightening for him. The society had trained him well.
______ ______ ______
Andil watched Sil for a moment, as he cut his grilled cheese sandwich and took a tiny, precise bite. It seemed perfectly normal for a person to be eating such a meal with a knife and fork. Even so, she found it difficult to bring her eyes away, after she realized she was staring.
Sil kept his gaze locked on her eyes. That was the proper thing to do, even though they were rather quiet. Every few moments he took a quick glance at his food to see what he was doing, but he tried to keep that to a minimum.
Andil looked down at her burger. She stared for a long while, knowing she should be making better eye-contact, but she wasn’t in the mood for self-control. Perhaps the burger was a bad idea, she thought. Very difficult to eat properly. Burgers are better left for private times. She wished she could just pick it up and eat it with her hands.
“Andil?” Sil said. “Do you mind if I ask a rather personal question?”
She looked up and met his gaze. “I don’t mind,” she replied.
“You appear distracted. Is something bothering you?”
She shook her head. “No, nothing’s bothering me. I was just thinking—no, it isn’t appropriate.”
Sil nodded and they went back to silently eating. Andil forced herself to make better eye-contact.
Pe’s so very different, Sil thought. Pe seems somehow different from everyone else. No no, that’s a cruel thing to think. I guess I don’t mean it in a bad way, though.
Pe’s a female, right? He thought. Yes, yes, I believe so.
He didn’t know what exactly that word meant, but somehow he knew that’s what she was. Sil knew the two words to describe the two different types of people, but didn’t know specifically how to classify people into those groups. Usually he came up with a gut feeling telling him one person was male while another female. He had no idea what it all meant, but he knew it wasn’t proper for him to be classifying people, and he felt ashamed.
Maybe I should ask Andil for an open-communication contract, he thought.
No, no, he corrected. That’s ridiculous. Pe would never go for it. Stupid idea.
Sil did not feel even a slight attraction toward Andil. That feeling had been completely repressed and he knew nothing of the concept. His theory that Andil was female and he was male held no meaning for him. However, he still felt curious about Andil, and wanted to know her better.
Andil continued staring into Sil’s eyes and she began to lose herself. The walls suddenly seemed like they were closing in. Faces of former etiquette teachers flashed before her. Still, she kept eye-contact, as if nothing else in the world mattered. She wished she could just look away for a moment. Logically she knew that wouldn’t matter too much. It’s not like Sil will go into a rage if I lose eye contact. But she couldn’t make herself believe this.
Someone lurked behind her. She knew the person was there, ready to grab her by the neck if she didn’t watch her manners, and strangle her until she conformed.
The whole of society stood behind her, ready to grab and strangle. They all knew she’d foul up sometime. They stood and waited for her to do or say something improper, then it would be time, and it would all be over. She knew they were there.
Suddenly, on the edge of her vision, something moved, and her concentration broke. She looked away, to see a naked form, running, on the other side of the restaurant. Without thinking about it, she stood, but said nothing. The naked person screamed something, such a loud shrill, a joyous shout. Andil pointed, but no one seemed to notice. The other restaurant patrons looked at her instead. Most of them turned away quickly since it was impolite to stare.
The vision blurred, and Andil realized what it was. She shut her eyes tightly and before opening them the halucination had disappeared. She sat down, breathing heavily.
“I’m sorry, Sil,” she said. “Oh, I am so sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t think I’m feeling very well today.”
“It’s okay, Andil. I am not bothered,” Sil replied. “May I ask you something? What was that about?”
“I’m sorry, Sil,” she said. “I’m really sorry. It isn’t appropriate.”
He blankly stared at her, not knowing what to say. The idea of the open-communication contract came to his mind. Something like that would allow her to tell him the things she thinks are inappropriate. Sil did not disregard the idea so quickly this time. Andil seemed like an amazingly open minded person.
Andil forced herself to stare back at Sil. “Do you think it would be okay with you if I went home? I don’t mean to leave you here all alone, and I wouldn’t ask this of you if I wasn’t feeling so ill.”
“No, it’s okay,” Sil said. “I don’t want to keep you here if you’re not feeling well. I don’t mind you leaving. I’ve enjoyed your company.” He stood up. “Good-bye, Andil.”
“Good-bye, Sil.” They shook hands and broke eye-contact. Andil turned away and walked toward the exit, a dull throbbing pain developing in her chest.
______ _______ ______
During the night something disturbed her sleep.
A voice, dry and scratchy, commanding. “Conform,” it said.
Andil felt fingers around her neck. “Conform!” it demanded, and when Andil replied with a silent no the fingers began to close. “We have no room for people like you,” said the voice. “You disturb the rest of the good-natured society. We give you one last chance. Conform.”
She did not reply and the fingers closed hard.
And she awoke, saying the word conform to herself. She sat up, saying it out loud.
In a way she felt that that was the right choice. Be a good person, go along with everyone else, hide your personality to avoid offending anyone. Get along. Be good, be good. Conform. To maintain order within a society, everyone must be the same.
Deep down, though, she recoiled at the thought. She wondered if it had all been a dream, or was somebody actually out there controlling her thoughts, demanding that she alter herself?
“No,” she said loudly, and she stepped out of bed and walked out of the room, not considering getting dressed.
______ ______ ______
She called in sick to work that day and decided to simply hang around her apartment. Eventually she put on a summer uniform because she wished to have a look outside. She ate a little. She tried watching television for a while but found it too boring to stand. She considered reading a story, but knew without trying it the absurdity of that idea. There couldn’t be anything available that could possibly entertain her. Books were too generic these days, too regulated.
Maybe I could write something, she thought. A story. Something about a person who’s a little different from everyone else, who can’t seem to fit in. A story that doesn’t conform to all of today’s literature guidelines.
She sat down in front of the computer screen and stared for nearly half an hour, but couldn’t come up with anything. Eventually she tried writing some poetry, and actually put a few lines down. She knew she could never show it to anyone, even if she completed something. But she lost herself in the thought processes anyway, coming up with numerous lines to complete the poem but finding them too risque to show to even herself.
It doesn’t matter. Just write something. No one will see it. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and allowed her mind to leap. The world seemed to collapse upon her. Her gravity shifted and for a fraction of a moment, rode a wave of dizziness. Opening her eyes, everything seemed to come back to normal, physically speaking, though she suddenly felt a sickening draw to her computer screen and her fingers began moving across the keyboard.
I am human.
I know I am human because I am told I am human.
I am woman.
But I am told I am not. I’m told I am human and nothing more.
I am a part of this world.
I am told I am a part of the world.
I’m a part of the world, a part of the world. I am a part of this world.
And yet… I am woman, because I know that I am.
The words formed themselves in just a few minutes, and Andil rose without reading them. She wandered in circles, her mind racing. My mind needs space from this. Think of something else. She looked down at herself. I need to change. This is winter. I’m in a summer uniform. This will not do.
She walked to her bedroom. I should go into the closet to change. I don’t want the camera to see me.
No, she told herself. Moderation. If this is who you are, then it’s time to get used to it.
She began removing her uniform, and again, found herself lost. She thought of her pervert, watching from his home computer, and a strange sensation overcame her senses. His imaginary gaze suddenly grasped her, and began to move her body. She danced, removing her clothing very slowly. She saw his eye, now on the surface of her imagination, wickedly enticing her to go on with the performance.
Piece by piece, her clothing fell to the ground until she wore only her underwear. She danced, unaware of any other aspect of her life, turned, and extended her rear for the camera, but found herself staring at her bed, the place where she slept every night under tight covers, safe from all those sick people out there, people who liked to touch themselves, or dance naked in front of the police cameras.
Her stomach tensed.
What am I doing?! She turned back, seeing the camera again, though this time from a much different perspective. She cringed, covering herself with her arms but finding them wholly unacceptable. I’m exposed! And she screamed, then dove for her closet, crawling frantically to the back, snatching uniforms from the rack. She covered herself, curled tightly in the back corner of her closet.
I’m sick, she thought. Oh, I am so horribly sick. I’m the kind of person they lock away on remote islands because of antisocial behavior. Oh, no, what is wrong with me?
She remained curled in the corner for some time, then calmed herself. It’s all conditioned, she told herself. I have no reason to feel shame. She rose, pulling on a winter uniform, took a deep breath and exited the closet.
And everything felt normal again. She walked to the living room, and noticed her poem, still sitting on the computer. Yes, a very sick and twisted poem… by society’s standards… but this is my poem. Just for me. She saved it, and locked it into her personal files.
I’ve been having some mood swings lately… but the last one was actually sort of fun. I didn’t hurt anyone. I didn’t hurt myself. I’ll read that poem again some time, and see if my mind reacts in a similar fashion.
She went to the window, and looked out at the world, but suddenly did not feel as free as she had a moment ago.
You’re trying to protect me, she thought. So many people out there, billions of people, all thinking potentially offensive things, so you protect me from them. You think I couldn’t handle it, and—who knows—maybe I couldn’t, but I’ll never get the chance to find out. By protecting me, you box me in, you make me a prisoner in myself.
It was for her own good. She knew that, which made it that much harder to rebel against. The government, years ago, had decided to make it easier for people to be themselves. It wanted to honor individuals, and their differences, so it outlawed more and more forms of ridicule, and in so doing, it banned people’s words. They could no longer openly display who they were. The government gave them the freedom to practice any religion they wished, to believe in anything they wished, just so long as they did it in their own head, and nowhere else. While attempting to honor individuals, it forced everyone to be the same.
But here was a person who wasn’t afraid of ridicule, who, in fact would like nothing more than to have people laugh at her. It would mean that she and everyone else had broken free of the strict confines of the society. She wouldn’t care if someone made a joke about her, or her type; she’d see the humor and she’d laugh. She wouldn’t care if someone criticized her; she’d take the criticism, and she’d consider it. She wouldn’t cry about it.
But that wasn’t the way the world worked.
“That isn’t the way it works,” Andil whispered to herself, still staring out the window at the street below.
But does that mean I have to go along with it? She asked herself.
Well… I’ll have to think about that.
______ ______ ______
“Andil?” the soft unisexual computer voice asked.
“You have a message.”
“A message? From whom?”
“The person does not wish to give per name.”
“Oh,” Andil said. “Well let per speak, then.”
“Pe does not wish to speak directly. I will relay what pe says. Does this sound acceptable?”
“Pe wishes to offer you an open-communication contract.”
Her mouth dropped open. “A what?”
“A communication contract. It is a verbal agreement between two people stating that neither party will be offended by what the other says. It offers the ability to communicate more openly, and more personally. An agreement for the two parties to meet with each other more frequently is usually included.”
Andil was silent.
“Would you like a more detailed explanation, Andil?”
“No, thank you. I know what it is.”
“Would it be acceptable to you for someone to know you better? This person has stated that pe wishes to spend more time with you than pe currently does.”
“Yes,” Andil said. “I think I would like to agree to the contract.”
“Andil,” the voice replied. “In my computerized opinion, this is an important decision. If you feel there is any possibility of being offended, I recommend that you do not accept.”
“No, no. The specifics of the contract can be negotiated. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t accept.”
“Would you like to know who it is, first?”
“Yes, okay. Tell me.”
“Please allow one moment for per to tell me if that would be acceptable.”
Several seconds later: “It is Sil, from drafting department in your work building.”
“Is the contract still acceptable to you after knowing the identity of the person?”
“Yes. Please ask per when we can meet to discuss the details of the contract.”
“Andil?” It was Sil’s voice.
“Hello, Sil,” Andil said. “How do you do?”
“I’m doing okay, thank you. How are you?”
“I’m all right as well, thank you. Do you mind if I get to the point, Sil?”
He paused. “Okay.”
“When should we meet to discuss the contract you propose?”
“Uh,” Sil started. “Well, I don’t know. You must forgive me, Andil, I’m a little nervous about all this.”
“You thought through your decision first, right?” Andil said, skipping the courtesy of asking if she could ask a personal question.
Sil was caught off guard. “Well, yes I did think it through. It is just that I did not know how you would react to my proposal.”
“I understand, Sil. How would you like to come to my apartment tonight to discuss this?”
There was a long period of silence as the computer on the other end explained to Sil that if he felt at all uncomfortable about visiting her alone, he probably should not agree. It took Sil a long time to decide. He felt as though things might be moving a little too quickly.
“Okay, I could come over.” Andil could hear the reluctance in his voice, but decided not to dwell on it.
“Good. When should I expect you?”
“Uh… Maybe forty-five minutes. Would that be okay?”
“Sure. I’ll see you then, Sil.” Andil smiled to herself, realizing she had forgotten the courtesy of asking if he had any ideas of where to meet.
______ ______ ______
“I was wondering if I could ask you why you weren’t at work today,” Sil said. “If you’re not comfortable telling me, I don’t mind.”
“I wasn’t feeling well,” Andil replied. “Not physically ill, but it was something else. It’s hard to explain.”
He nodded. “I see.”
They sat on the couch in Andil’s apartment, a full meter separating them. Andil had put on a winter uniform and brought the temperature down to compensate for the extra clothing. She had decided not to skip the courtesy of asking Sil if he had a temperature preference.
“I wanted to apologize if I came out sounding rude when we talked earlier, Sil,” Andil said. “I know this is no excuse, but your proposal kind of threw me off. Not that I’m not flattered, I was just surprised. So I’m sorry if I was a little too demanding.”
“It’s all right, Andil.” Sil took a deep breath. “Would you like to draw up this contract now?”
It took them nearly twenty minutes to agree on the specifics of the contract. Sil admitted that he wanted them to be able to talk and ask questions of each other that weren’t normally allowed in general conversations. They agreed on what type of questions could be asked of each other, and they both reserved the right to refuse to answer anything that might come up. They agreed that the contract could be broken at any time by either party, without risking offense, by simply stating that they wished to do so. It was basically a standard contract, though a little less restrictive than most.
“So now what?” Andil asked, after the computer had recorded their verbal agreement.
“What would you like?” Sil replied.
“Well we’ve drawn up this wonderful contract saying basically that we can ask each other anything we want. Why don’t you ask me a question?”
Sil looked around the room, trying to think of something to start off with. “Okay,” he said to stall for time. A moment passed. “How long have you lived in this apartment? Was that a good question?”
“I’ve lived here for six years. My last apartment was across town.”
They stared silently at each other. “Do you want a turn?” Sil asked.
“Is this the first time you’ve ever drawn up a communication contract with anyone?” Andil popped off immediately.
“This is my first time. How about you?”
“First time,” Andil said. “I’ll ask another one. Are you the parent of anyone?”
Sil was caught off guard by that one. The question wasn’t any more personal than the first one, but he had more to say in reply. He started off slowly. “No, I have no offspring, but I almost did at one point.”
Andil hadn’t been expecting a lead up to a story. Her line of questioning had been intended to just get things started. “Tell me about it,” she said.
“About four years ago I was called down to the Department of Reproduction.” He paused, in case she didn’t want him to continue. The Department of Reproduction was an offensive topic for many people. But when she did nothing but stare at him and appear interested, he continued. “They wanted me to have a baby. The government apparently tries to keep the world population at exactly ten billion. Since there are not enough volunteers for reproduction, they have to draft people. It’s fairly rare, but I was one of the ones selected.”
“They actually force people to reproduce?” Andil said, aghast.
“They try to keep it to a minimum and it is very rare, but yes, it does happen.”
“So why didn’t they ever go through with it with you?”
“The nearest Department of Reproduction is three-hundred miles away, so they credited me with four weeks off work and bought me a plane ticket. When I got there—“ he faltered for a moment. “Sorry. When I arrived they injected me with drugs and I fell asleep.”
“They made you go to sleep in front of other people?” Andil asked.
“The computer told me that I would not be seen by human eyes,” Sil replied. “I fell asleep and they ran some sort of examination and when I woke up, I—“ he faltered again, not wanting to complete his story, but he forced himself on: “Sorry. When I woke up I was told I wasn’t eligible for reproduction. I think something’s wrong with me. I can never become pregnant, Andil. Apparently nearly half the population is like me, but that doesn’t make it any easier. I’m sorry if I’m complaining, Andil.”
“No, no. Please, go on.”
“So that was it. They sent me home. The whole thing didn’t take more than three hours. So now I know I do not have the capacity to reproduce. However, they told me that they took something from my body that would help them with future reproductions. They didn’t tell me what it was that they took, but they said I wouldn’t need it, and I wouldn’t miss it.”
“Is that legal?” Andil asked.
“I don’t know what they took, but I was told that it was legal. I never checked up on it, though. Apparently they take it from every person who isn’t capable of reproducing directly. Maybe it makes them feel like they’re contributing. I guess it did for me.”
“Do you ever wonder why you cannot create offspring?” Andil asked.
“No. It never really struck me as being important.”
“You’re not even a little curious. They’d tell you, you know. You’re legally entitled to have information about that type of thing.”
Sil took a deep breath, feeling a little uncomfortable. He didn’t know exactly why he didn’t want to know, but he had always had a feeling that the explanation was something horrible, something he couldn’t handle, so he’d never asked. He didn’t enjoy Andil’s prodding him on the subject. “I’m sorry, Andil, but I would really appreciate it if you would discontinue this line of questioning.”
“Oh. I’m sorry, Sil. I’ll stop now.”
They stared into each other’s eyes for several minutes, silent. “Why don’t you ask me something, Sil? Anything you’ve been wanting to know about me.”
“What should I ask?” he said after a moment.
“It wouldn’t be the same if I told you what to ask.”
He waited a long moment before answering. “I’m sorry, Andil. There’s nothing that I’m especially curious about.”
“Oh. That’s all right.” They continued to stare at each other.
“Please don’t take this the wrong way, but do you mind if I look away?”
He looked down at his shoes and closed his eyes for a moment. Maintaining eye-contact was a difficult thing in such awkward situations. He didn’t like the way he’d gotten out of it, though.
“People don’t really need to keep eye-contact to have a conversation,” Andil commented.
Sil looked back up at her. “I don’t understand,” he said.
“Well, if you think about it, it isn’t necessary. You don’t need to look into someone’s eyes to hear what they’re saying.”
“I’m sorry, I still don’t understand.” His eyes narrowed into a look of utter perplexity.
She smiled. “You’re rather cute when you’re confused,” she said, and immediately wished she hadn’t.
But he didn’t understand what she meant. He cocked his head, and couldn’t help backing away from her. It was a terribly rude gesture, he knew, but Andil was beginning to frighten him. “Perhaps it is time for me to go home.”
“You’re going to leave me?” she asked, a sly grin on her face.
He couldn’t answer something like that. He wished that he could just give her an affirmative and leave, but her question was stated so that it implied that she would like him to stay, therefore he felt obliged to do so.
Andil grinned widely and stared deeply into his eyes and found herself overcome with some strange feeling that she could not explain. She saw how uncomfortable he was, and wanted to laugh. His pain was her humor.
I’m such a horrible person, she told herself. How can I think something like that—to actually laugh at another human being–!
A tiny giggle escaped her and Sil’s mouth seemed to open fractionally in an expression of hurt. There had to be some way of alleviating the tension.
Without realizing what she was doing, Andil leaned forward, closing the distance between them. Sil flinched and pulled back fractionally, a look of terror on his face.
Seeing the situation as if from a great distance, Andil closed the gap and touched her lips to his—for no more than an instant.
Sil let out such a scream that he had never emitted in his life. Discarding the possibility of proper manners, he put his hand to her face and shoved hard. Frantically, he took a hold of the edge of the couch and pulled himself free. Tripping over the coffee table, he sprawled out on the floor. “What—what are you doing, Andil?” he shouted.
“Andil,” the computerized voice called. “Physical contact without prior agreement is a crime. You are accused of committing such a crime. It is apparent that you were the aggressor in this situation. How do you plead?”
“What–?” she started. She looked at Sil, still sprawled on the floor. He still wore the look of stupefied terror. “How do I plead?” she asked. The situation was beginning to dawn on her.
“You have been accused of a crime, Andil. Do you wish to explain yourself?”
“Well—“ she started again.
“You are required by law to answer the question. Did you commit the crime in question?”
“You saw the whole thing,” Andil said. “Yes, I did it.”
“Sil,” the voice asked, “were you injured by Andil’s action?”
Sil stood up slowly and turned round, looking for the origin of the voice. He thought about the question. Everything he had ever been taught told him that touching another person without permission was about the most damaging thing someone could do. But looking at Andil now, seeing the growing fear in her eyes, he realized that she hadn’t meant any harm. She had realized that this one incident would change her life forever, and Sil saw this. She hadn’t caused him any permanent damage. Logically he knew this, but he had lived so many years in a society where a person couldn’t do anything more horrible than what Andil had done. He had difficulty accepting the fact that she hadn’t seriously hurt him.
Even so, he managed to say, “No. No I am not injured,” all the while thinking, pe’s a horrible person, a horrible, horrible person. That’s the only explanation. The contract idea was a mistake.
“Andil’s sentence will be lessened because you are not hurt,” the voice stated. “Sil, it is recommended that you leave now. It is not that we do not enjoy your company, but it would be best if you were not here when the authorities arrive. No offense is intended.”
“Okay,” Sil said. “I’ll leave now.” He stepped forward and held out a hand to Andil. “I thank you for your hospitality, Andil. It has been a pleasure.” Even in situations like this, Sil could not let himself forget his manners. He turned and walked toward the door. “Would you like me to close this on my way out?” he asked.
“Thank you,” Andil replied.
Their eyes met for the last time immediately before the door latched.
“The authorities will arrive in several minutes, Andil,” said the computer voice. “You have been convicted of a crime. This statement is not meant as an insult; it is simply a fact. This does not mean you are a bad person. It simply means—“
“Just be quiet,” Andil said. “I don’t want to listen to you anymore—and I do mean that as an insult.”
______ ______ ______
“Do you feel guilty about what you did, Andil?” Billi, the medical asked. (Everyone in the medical profession were called ‘medicals’, since specific references such as nurse, doctor, or psychiatrist, had been abolished.) Andil and the medical sat in identical chairs in Andil’s room at the correctional institute. Billi was attempting to figure out how she could bring Andil back toward conformity. The utter strangeness of Andil’s opinions frightened Billi.
“I can’t say I feel guilty,” Andil told the woman. “I feel bad because I know I may have hurt Sil, but I don’t feel bad about what I did. This may sound stupid but I think that if Sil was hurt, it was per own choice. I honestly don’t think the contact truly hurt per, though. Pe said that pe was not injured.”
The medical cocked her head curiously, maintaining eye-contact.
“That sounds pretty stupid to you, doesn’t it?” Andil asked.
The woman was slow in answering, “No.”
“I know that you think I’m stupid,” Andil said. “It won’t change anything if you say it out loud.”
Billi didn’t answer. She looked down for a fraction of an instant. “I want to ask you something, Andil.”
“What do you truly want out of life?”
“What do I want?” said Andil. She paused to think. “I guess I just want to be allowed to be myself.”
“Who says you’re not allowed to be yourself?”
“I want to be able to show people who I am,” Andil continued, “and not worry about what they think. I want to stop worrying about offending people. There are things that I avoid saying, and I don’t even know why I’m avoiding them. I feel trapped. I can’t say or do anything that I really want to.”
“So you think you should be allowed to do anything you want, without any penalty?” the medical asked.
Andil paused a moment, but decided to ignore the question. “I want people to be able to tell me what they think of me. I want to hear what they have to say. I want to be able to state my own opinions, and not have people jump on me for talking offensively. I’ll bet you that if I asked you to tell me what you truly think of me, you’d lie.”
“You think I’d lie to you?” Billi said, defensively.
“You would,” Andil said. “You think that if you told me what you really think of me, it would crush me. You think I don’t have the capacity to handle a little criticism. Most people don’t have that capacity. It’s just the way everyone was raised. People these days jump to conclusions too quickly. Compliments are twisted into insults. Simple criticism is interpreted as all-out verbal abuse. Jokes are heinous crimes. Now why do you think that is? It’s because we’ve become weak as a society. It’s because we all want to point the finger at someone else. We say, ‘It’s your fault. You are a bad person, because you say things I don’t like.’” Andil punctuated herself by pointing a finger at Billi. “’It’s your job to see that I am never offended. My happiness is your responsibility.’ Somebody says something you don’t like, you have the choice of getting upset or saying to yourself ‘It doesn’t matter’ and go on. If people would say, ‘It doesn’t matter’ more often, we wouldn’t have these limitations on what we can say. We have lost our ability to communicate, because we are so worried that we’re being insulted. If we could just back up and try to see things through other people’s eyes, we’d see that the things people say are rarely meant as insults, and even if they are, what does it matter? Is it going to kill you to know there’s someone out there that doesn’t like you?”
Billi was having difficulty breathing. Never in her life had she heard anyone make such a long speech, or with such force. Andil saw a tear roll down her face onto her uniform. “You think I’m a bad person, because I haven’t made you happy?” Billi sobbed. “I’m sorry, Andil but I’ve done the best I can—“
“No, no.” Andil said. “You’re missing my point—“
“I don’t think I’ve lost my ability to communicate, and if you think I have there’s no reason for you to throw it at me like that.” She covered her face with her hands. “Why do you hate me, Andil?”
“I never said anything even close to that,” Andil replied, quickly.
“So you think I’m stupid too?” Billi stopped for several moments, trying to talk between her choking sobs. “Why, Andil—Why–?” She stood and darted from the room.
In utter shock by the medical’s reaction, Andil watched her go. I have to go after per, she thought. She completely misinterpreted what I said. I need to go explain myself.
Halfway out of her seat, she stopped herself. From now on there will surely be a lot of people misinterpreting what I say. If I go running after every one, I won’t have any time for myself. It’s not my responsibility.
______ ______ _____
She stood in front of the food station in the corner of her room, trying to decide what she wanted to eat.
“Andil,” came the computerized voice.
“I have determined the cause of the incident involving Sil.”
“Excuse me?” Andil said, turning away from the food computer.
“You are free to go home, Andil, as soon as you eat a meal.”
“Why?” she demanded. “Why are you letting me go after all this?”
The voice did not reply.
“Tell me,” Andil said.
“There was a computer error that caused you to commit the crime which brought you here. It was not your fault, therefore you are free to go.”
“What the fuck do you mean by that?”
“Using offensive language in privacy is a half credit—“
“I don’t care what you’re fining me!” Andil shouted. “Tell me why you’re letting me go.”
Again, the computer remained silent. Legally, Andil had the right to know what had happened. Any human had the right to information that pertained to them, but the answer to Andil’s question was something that the general public wasn’t supposed to know about. “It is suggested, Andil, that you have something to eat first. Afterward I will answer any questions you may have.”
She reached out and turned the food station off. “You tell me now.”
“The food supply of every human-being contains a small amount of a chemical that makes people more socially compatible. Among other things, it suppresses sexual urges, which was the problem in your case.”
“I’m sorry,” Andil said, “I am not familiar with that word you used.”
“It isn’t necessary that you understand the definition. Very few people do. The computer error caused the food dispenser in your apartment to give you an insufficient supply of this chemical. That was the problem. There was nothing wrong with you. You can feel safe now, because the problem has been solved.”
“So what you’re saying is that you drug us all,” Andil said. “You influence our thoughts. It has always been said that people are free to think whatever they want, but now you show me that that is a lie. Well, from now on, I want you to stop putting these chemicals in my meals.”
“That is not going to happen, Andil,” the voice said. “In order for a society to function, everyone must be alike. Many natural human feelings have been determined to be offensive, therefore they must be eliminated in order for society to function.”
“Everyone must be alike,” Andil repeated. “There are differences between males and females, aren’t there?”
“Andil,” the computer said, “use of those words is very often considered offensive.”
“But they’re real words, with definitions,” Andil replied.
“They are not real words and there are no definitions. Suggesting that differences exist between people is not proper, and if you continue, you will be fined. There is only one type of human, Andil.”
“If I was still on your drugs,” Andil said, “maybe I’d believe you.”
She went to the door, found it unlocked and looked out into the hall. She heard voices, and saw people in the front office at the end of the hall. They hate me, she thought, and smiled. They think I’m stupid. They think I don’t belong in their society. They think I’m insane.
She laughed. I just might be all of those things.
Looking back at the food terminal, she realized that all of this would end. One way or another, she would have to go back on their drugs, or else she would starve. But anything I do right now, isn’t my fault—at least in their opinion.
She took a step back into her room and began pulling off her clothing.
I don’t care what they think of me, she told herself. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter what they think. She told herself over and over again as she undressed.
When she had reached the point, she looked down at her undergarments. Off with them too, she thought. She dropped them on the floor.
Stepping, naked, into the hall, she thought to herself, I don’t care what they think. I need this. I won’t be able to live with myself if I don’t.
She walked slowly down the hall, but quickly began to run. People turned to look at her, and were shocked by what they saw. Some believed they were hallucinating. Many could not speak for hours afterward. But none were permanently damaged, and some even laughed about it later.
As she ran through the office, Andil let out the cry of joy that she’d been holding back for so many years.