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  • Writer's pictureJake Thornton

My First Short Story - Paternity Test

Last year, during the WGA writer's strike, I began playing around with short stories, purely as a way to keep myself engaged in writing fiction in prose form. My first novel was out to publishers, and I didn't have another novel in me at the time, so I began to just write a little bit every day to build up my writing habit again.


The result is the short story below. It's a fun little science fiction piece I'd had for some time, that at I originally wanted to make as a short film, and maybe will at some point. But in the meantime, here it is. I'd love your feedback (both positive and negative!) if you'd be so kind. You can leave it in the comments below.


Enjoy!


PATERNITY TEST

by Jake Thornton





“I want to have a baby,” Allison said, as she held her morning cup of caffeine at the breakfast bar of their cramped habitation unit.

Will turned from the caffeine machine and sighed. He knew this day had been coming for a long while. An unspoken knowing had told him she was beginning to feel the pangs that her body was dictating. He’d sensed it whenever they passed a mother pushing a child in a stroller, or walked by a baby clothing store in the mall, or, while eating at Larry’s, they’d seen a family walk past their table and noticed Allison’s lingering stare at the toddler in the group. And now the day was finally here.

“You sure? It’s expensive. And it’s a lot of paperwork,” he replied, choosing which flavour of caffeine he wanted from the touch screen.

“I’m sure. I know it’ll be hard, but I think we’re ready. Don’t you? Besides, we’d get given a bigger apartment. An extra bedroom. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?”

Will chose his flavour. Coffee. Black. He needed it.


#


They’d been married for seven years, and most of it was good. They’d met in their final year of college, and the sparks had been instant. They’d bonded over their mutual love of Italian Food, and the music of Greco Gecco. They moved in nine months later and married within the year. The government incentives to marry had been too good to pass up, and besides, they were in love. And so they both got on with life. Will scored a job at the LifeMart, selling computers, and tablets, and watches, and whatever LifeMart told society they needed, and Allison worked for the Department of Water and Power as a customer service specialist. Life was good enough. But they fell into routine, as many do.

The passionate sex slowed to a once every two-week event, that involved a regular performance by each of them, going by the numbers to keep the other satisfied. The sparks that had flown when they first met died away, and they were left with the reality of simply being married to a person they’d met when they were young. They loved each other, sure. The same way anyone feels about a member of their family.

So when Allison decided she wanted the next stage of their relationship, it was to be expected. This was what normal, functioning, and contributive members of society did after all.


#


A week later, they were dropped off by Autotaxi outside the concrete and glass slab that was the home of the local Department of Parental Standards. It seemed to stretch into the sky forever, like some gigantic monolith.

Will stood on the cramped, stinking sidewalk, hordes of bustling commuters going god knew where and stared up at the building. It didn’t speak of the joy of parenting, or of the collective growth of the human race toward a brighter and better future. It looked like the DMV. Or an accounting firm. Will checked his LifePhone to make sure he had the right address. He sighed. It had been a stressful morning since the moment he’d woken up.

“If we’re going to be parents, we need to be in shape,” Allison had insisted as she dressed earlier that day.

She’d been riven with anxiety, up before him, doing ‘Yoga with Stephanie’ on the TV, something she’d suddenly started over the last week.

“‘A robust physical examination’. That’s what the website said. Robust,” she said.

She’d been a whirlwind of motion, ensuring everything was just so. She’d fixed her hair, applied makeup for a change, and even wore her date night panties. She hadn’t worn those in a while…

“It’s an interview,” Will had said, unable to hide the snark from his voice as he’d brushed his teeth and took his meds.

“I just want to feel my best. It’ll give me confidence. Don’t wear that shirt. Wear the blue one. It showcases your eyes. And hides your gut.”

Will sucked in his gut now as continued to stare up at the building.

“You gonna stand blocking the sidewalk all day, asshole?” a man in a cheap business suit snapped at him.

Will moved out of the way, as the man walked past, muttering to himself.

Will and Allison made their way across the street and headed through the automatic doors of the Department of Parental Standards into the bland foyer.

A secretary bot, her face screen on the fritz, sat behind a faux marble desk. “How may I h-help y-you?” the secretary bot asked and twitched.

“Will and Allison Harper,” he replied. “We have an 11.15.”

“Identity chits, please.”

Will and Allison presented their palms, and the secretary bot waved her hand over theirs scanning their chits.

“One-one moment.”

The secretary bot twitched once more and gazed off into the distance.

A long silence passed. Will went to chew on his nail, a nervous habit he’d had since he was a kid. Allison snatched his hand away from his mouth.

“Stop being anxious,” she whispered.

“I’m not anxious.”

“You’re biting your nails.”

“It’s a habit.”

“An anxious habit. It makes you look weak. You can’t look weak. They watch you everywhere you know.”

She nodded at the secretary bot, who hadn’t moved since scanning their chits.

“I’m not weak,” said Will.

“I didn’t say you were weak. I said it makes you look weak. There’s a—”

“Elevator two. Sixth floor. Room six-six seventeen” blurted the secretary bot.

“Thank you very much,” Allison said.

“Wait, was that room six seventeen, or six-six seventeen?”

“Yes,” replied the secretary bot.

Allison pulled Will along.

The sixth-floor corridor was filled with identical white doors. Worn, brown-grey carpet tiles ran the length of the hallway. Blue-white LED light strips hung from the ceiling. There was no art on the walls. If there’s a hell, Will mused, this is what it looks like.

They followed the door numbers to 617. Will knocked.

Silence.

He knocked again.

Nothing.

“Knock louder,” Allison said.

“I knocked pretty loud.”

“Just do it.”

“I’m just saying I knocked loud enough.”

“You didn’t. You never do.”

“What? When do I not knock loud enough?”

“It’s a thing you do. You’ve done it since I met you. I just never say anything.”

Allison knocked hard on the door.

Silence.

“You see, for me that’s too loud,” said Will. “It sounds aggressive. Maybe it was six six seventeen. Do we have the right—?”

The door creaked open.

A four-foot-something squat woman, her face a mask of powder, and bright red lipstick that was escaping her lips onto her face via a multitude of wrinkles peered out.

“Mr. And Mrs. Harper. You’re late.”

Will glanced at his LifePhone. 11.15. “Looks like we’re right on time actu—”

“Come in. Take a seat.”

The woman hobbled over to a desk where a nameplate read:

A. MACGREGOR

TEST ADMINISTRATOR

DEPT. OF PARENTAL STANDARDS


A. MacGregor, test administrator for the Department of Parenting Standards, clicked a few times on the screen in front of her, her dead eyes taking in the information there.

Will looked around the office. Just like the hallway, it was void of anything. Plain white walls with no decoration. Even her desk held the bare minimum required to do her job. There wasn’t even a family photo.

That’s ironic, thought Will. This crone probably never even had kids of her—

“So you want to be parents,” A. MacGregor droned, breaking the silence.

“Yes,” said Allison, all bubbles and love.

A. MacGregor looked at Will and raised a questioning eyebrow.

“Of course. Yes,” echoed Will. “That’s why we’re here.”

A. MacGregor clicked something on her screen.

“You’ve passed the preliminary screening. That’s good. You do understand, that in these days of vast overpopulation, only those deemed most fit for parenthood are allowed to reproduce?”

“We do. And we take it very seriously,” Allison assured.

Once more, A. MacGregor looked to Will.

“Very seriously,” he echoed.

A few more clicks. A few more tense seconds of silence.

“Let's start with you, Mr. Harper,” A. MacGregor said. “I’m going to ask you a series of questions. Some of these may be simple word associations, some may require more complex answers. Answer as quickly as you can, please. Response time is a factor. Do you understand?”

“Is that one of the questions?” Will joked, trying to inject some kind of humour into the exchange.

A. MacGregor stared back. “Yes.”

“Then… yes.”

“What is seven plus fourteen?”

“What?”

“What state were you born in?”

“Uh… New York.”

“What state are we in now?”

“Seriously?”

“What’s a word…”

“Illinois.”

“What’s a word that rhymes with soup?”

“What?”

“The first word that comes into your head when I say idoneous.”

“Idoneous?”

“Would you describe yourself as an angry man?”

“Me? No.”

“You are sometimes. When you drive” added Allison.

“What?” asked Will.

“Please, Mrs. Harper,” chided A. MacGregor “Only Mr. Harper may answer.”

The old woman looked at Will, waiting for an additional reply.

“I wouldn’t say I’m angry, per se. I just think sometimes people could drive a little safer, you know?”

A. MacGregor clicked a few times on her screen.

“Alright. Mrs. Harper, your turn. I’m going to ask you a series of questions. Some of these may be simple word associations, some may require more—”

“Wait, that’s it? I’m done?” asked Will.

“You are.”

“You can tell if I’m fit to be a father based on whether or not I can find a word that rhymes with soup?”

A. MacGregor’s dead eyes glanced over to him. “I do have other appointments, Mr. Harper. Time is pressing. Now Mrs. Harper, tell me the first things that pops into your head when I make this noise.”

A. MacGregor bellowed like an elephant.


#


Two more weeks passed. Allison took the waiting hard, with sleepless nights and irritability. For Will, he just assumed that they would have deemed them non-conformant to the modern demands of parenthood. He couldn’t quite decide how he felt about that. Part of him was relieved. Did he really want kids? He saw his work colleagues, he wouldn’t call them friends, at the LifeMart who had children, and they always seemed on the edge of a nervous breakdown. And yet there was this small part of him that whispered at the edge of his mind that was disappointed. He only paid it any attention in the moments before he fell asleep each night. The small nagging at the back of his mind that somehow, something wasn’t going to be right with his life if he wasn’t a father.

And yet, at the end of the two weeks, they received a green envelope from the Department of Parental Standards. They both stared at it on the tiny dining table, where it lay, unopened, the fate of their future held within like some kind of Schrodinger’s cat.

“You open it,” Allison said, breaking the silence.

“Me?”

“You’re the man. You should open it.”

Will picked up the envelope and tore it open. Before he could read its contents, Allison snatched the letter and scanned the words. Her eyes filled with tears.

“What?” Will asked.

“They approved us for the next stage of testing.”

She hugged Will. But all Will could think about was what would happen next.


#


The delivery man wheeled the box in on a dolly. He’s handsome, Will thought. Too handsome. His jawline and rugged shoulders. I bet he gets laid all the—

“Congratulations,” the delivery man smiled, and he set the brown package down. “We’ve done it twice. It’s hard. But it’s worth it.”

He handed Will a LifeTablet, and Will signed it confirming the delivery.

“Any advice?” Will asked.

“Just do your best. That’s all you can do, right?”

Will nodded.

Allison came out from their bedroom, still wet from the shower. “It arrived!” she squealed.

She caught sight of the delivery man and smiled. Will caught the look and the subtle wink the delivery man gave.

The man smiled again, tapped his cap and with a “Good luck”, he left.

Allison ran her fingers over the box. “Can you believe it? You hear about it. You see your friends doing it. But now it’s us. I just can’t believe it.”

“Yeah. It’s… amazing.”

“You don’t seem excited.”

“I am. Of course I am. Just nervous I guess.”

“Let’s open it up.”

“Now? Don’t you wanna wait until—”

“I wanna do it now.”

Will dug out a box cutter from the drawer in the kitchen filled with the things that had no other home, and ran it along the tape.

“Careful,” Allison said.

“I’m being careful.”

“You don’t wanna hurt it.”

“I won’t.”

He opened the box and pulled out the Styrofoam packing material. The contents were wrapped in translucent plastic, but Will could already make out the fleshy rubber skin of… the thing.

He pulled it out. It was heavier than he expected. He unwrapped the plastic and placed it on the floor.

The Nuturbot SimuBaby stared out at nothing. It was made to imitate a six-month-old baby boy, and while it was as lifelike as modern robotics allowed, it still sat right in the middle of the uncanny valley. Its skin was silicone and felt cold to the touch. Its eyes were blue, but not a blue that was found anywhere in nature. And its thin, brown hair was made of some nylon derivative.

They both stared.

“Wow…” said Allison after a moment.

“Yeah. Wow,” Will said.

“Are there instructions?”

Will checked the box. There was nothing. He shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe there’s an ‘on’ switch.”

He picked up the SimuBaby, looking for a button. He turned it upside down, turning it in his hands. He could find nothing.

“Are you sure there aren’t instructions?” Allison asked.

“I looked.”

“Because often when you say you look, you don’t really look.”

“The box is empty. I checked and—

The SimuBaby jerked to life. Will jumped and almost dropped it.

“Please place me on a solid surface,” the baby said, with the voice of a full-grown man.

It wasn’t just any full-grown man. The baby had the voice of daytime talk show host Karl Kunnings. Rich and sonorous, caring and soulful. The same voice that had made his syndicated daytime show a hit for the last eleven years.

Will put the SimuBaby down on the floor once more. The robot blinked its eyes and looked up at Will first, then Allison.

“Hello, prospective parents. I’m Karl Kunnings, host of the Karl Kunnings show, nominated again this year for best daytime talk show by Women’s Choice Magazine. I’ll be your guide through the set-up process of your Nuturbot SimuBaby. Nuturbot. Making better parents of us all.”

Will looked to Allison, but she was engrossed.

“Over the next three months, SimuBaby will act and behave like a real human child. You will be required to feed, change, and bathe your SimuBaby as you would a real one. You are encouraged to read, sing, and play with SimuBaby as if it were your own living human baby. SimuBaby will cry when it needs something and will express upset at various stimuli by screaming, soiling itself, and vomiting. These events may occur at any time of day or night. As part of government testing, SimuBaby will record, via ocular lenses and microphones, your behaviour as parents and upload this information, as well as vital statistics of your parenting performance, to the Department of Parental Standards for review by our skilled staff. Should you meet government standards of appropriate parental behaviour, and should your SimuBaby thrive in your home, you will be allowed to reproduce naturally. In five seconds, SimBaby will power off, and power back on again, at which time your testing will begin. Your SimuBaby’s name is…. Roger. Thank you, and don’t forget to tune in daily to the Karl Kunnings show.”

The baby powered down, its head cocked to one side.

Will stared at it. “Its name is Roger? Seriously, who names a baby Roger?”

“Shhh. It’s listening remember?”

“It’s not on yet. Is it?”

“I don’t know. Is it?”

They both crouched down and stared at the thing.

With a start, the SimuBaby jerked to life once more. It stared up at them both, gurgled, and then promptly pissed itself.


#


The weeks that followed were an unending nightmare of sleep deprivation torture. Every night, when Will returned home from his job at the LifeMart, he was met by Allison who, without fail, thrust the SimuBaby into Will’s arms, always with words to the effect of “I need a break,” or “It’s your turn now.”

Will always tried to force a smile. The thing was recording them after all. “How you doing little guy? Had fun today with Mommy?”

He played with the thing, sometimes batting a ball back and forth across their box of a living room, building blocks with it, or taking it for walks in the snuggly on their rooftop shared garden space.

He often passed by several prospective parents who were also in the testing process. All had the same drained thousand-yard stare that looked back at him in the mirror every morning.

At dinnertime, they would try their best to feed the thing. They were meant to feed it real milk, and soft solids, all of which were processed in the SimuBaby’s belly, and eventually recycled into a faecal substance that emerged from the things ass at intervals or as a foul-smelling liquid vomit from its mouth.

After dinnertime, the thing, Roger, (Will still couldn’t call it Roger) would cry for four hours straight. Without fail. Every night. No amount of soothing would do the trick. No amount of bouncing, dancing, playing, singing, or swinging would do it. It just kept fucking crying.

At one point, Will had suggested they just put it in the crib they had assembled in their cramped bedroom, and close the door. But that had only enraged the thing more, and they’d been rewarded with a double bout of vomiting and diarrhoea.

After the four hours were up, the thing would eventually close its eyes and fall asleep. But then the game of parent ninja would begin, whereby Will and Allison would have to gently place the SimuBaby Roger thing in its crib, careful not to wake it, and then creep out of the room, all without making the hint of a sound. The slightest noise would wake it, and start a forty-five minute process of putting it back down to sleep once more.

They would sit on their couch, staring glassy-eyed at the TV for half an hour, before stumbling to bed, again as quietly as possible and in the pitch dark. Any extra light would inevitably wake the fucking SimuBaby Roger fucking thing, and the whole process would start again.

Will and Allison would peck each other on the cheek as they settled down, and simply whisper “Good luck.”

And it was a game of luck. On a good night, they’d get three hours of uninterrupted sleep. On a bad night, it was half an hour. They took it in turns, each taking a shift to soothe the SimuBaby Roger Robot Baby from Hell.


#


Will lay in a deep sleep. He was dreaming of a girl, Lisa, whom he used to screw in college before he’d met Allison. He hadn’t thought about her in years. It was a good dream. There’d been a party, which for some reason his dad was at, in the storeroom of the LifeMart, and then Lisa was there. The sexual tension had been high as she pulled him into a row of LifeTablets, and just as she was about to go down on him, she started crying. Like a baby. Like the fucking baby.

It was then that Will realised that it was a dream, and the SimuBaby was crying in the crib at the end of the bed. Sonofabitch. It had been such a good dream. The crying continued.

“It’s your turn,” mumbled Allison.

“No. I did the 4 am. It’s you.”

“No. I… Oh… right.”

Allison heaved herself out of bed, still half asleep, picked up the baby, and went into the living room. Will looked at the bedside clock. 6.17 am. He didn’t have to be up for forty-three minutes. If he could just will himself to continue that dream.

No sooner had Will managed to fall asleep once more, than his alarm clock was blaring. Will hit it. The sounds of the gurgling SimuBaby came from the other room. He stared up at the ceiling. He wasn’t sure how much more of this he could take. Was this all worth it? To go through this pain and agony with this godforsaken simulation, all so that he could through it again with the real thing? He stared at the speckled white ceiling, pondering life as a father. Did he want this? Allison did. She really did. And he wanted what she wanted. Right? His mind went back to Lisa. Now she’d been something special. She was the embodiment of life. Of free-spiritedness. Of laughter, and fun, and so much goddamn fucking. They’d done it everywhere. One time, they’d snuck into a church bathroom, and broken the sink off the wall. Man that had been—

“Honey, you’re gonna be late if you don’t get up,” came Allison’s shrill voice from the other room.

“Thanks, I’m getting up,” he replied, shaking off the memories of his youth.

He showered and shaved, and got into the bright yellow uniform of the LifeMart. He hated this uniform. He looked like a banana. Why couldn’t they have chosen something cooler? Something edgier. Like charcoal grey. Yeah, charcoal grey would have been sweet. Charcoal grey would make him look like a boss. Charcoal grey was—

“Ah. Shit. Honey, I need you. Major butt eruption,” yelled Allison.

Will entered the small living room and looked at the Roger thing in Allison’s arms. Brown faux crap was erupting out of its diaper and up its back and dripping onto the tiled floor. The baby was laughing too. Giggling with glee, and waving its arms around. Somehow it had the faux poop on its hands and had succeeded in rubbing it in Allison’s face.

“Oh, god, no,” she said holding the baby out. “Take it. Please.”

Will grabbed the thing, keeping it at arm’s distance, as he took it into their bedroom, toward the changing table by the window.

“Quite the explosion today, buddy,” Will said, as he began to strip off the diaper, and clear away the copious amounts of shit from the underside and back of the demon robot.

Roger continued to laugh and wave its arms about. Will grabbed a wet wipe and cleaned off its hand, then the other. Then made sure there was no trace of the rancid poo anywhere from the thing, then from the changing table, then from his hands. He wrapped up all the faeces-stained wipes and diapers, and put them in the incinerator by the table, dumped the dirty clothes in the wash, then grabbed a clean onesie, and slipped the little fuckhead into it. Clean, dry, with new clothes. And not a tear in sight.

Allison emerged from the bathroom, having cleaned off.

“Looks like I’m finally getting the hang of this,” Will smiled.

Roger frowned. Then a stream of vomit erupted from its mouth over the two of them.


#


Will was seventeen minutes late for work. His manager, the balding Mr. Robertson, a humourless dick stuck in a job he hated, looked at his watch (yes, he still wore a watch) and then stared at Will through his thick, black-rimmed glasses as Will rushed across the shop floor. He darted into the break room, put his wallet and keys into his locker, and scanned his palm on the chit reader to clock in. He hurried back to the shop floor when he found himself in front of Mr. Robertson.

There was one thing Mr. Robertson hated more than his job, and that was anyone who worked under him. He sneered at Will through his thick moustache that he grew to make up for his missing hair.

“Second time this week, William,” he said. Will had never been called William in his life. His parents had named him Will. He’d always been Will. The only person who called him William was Mr. Robertson.

“I’m sorry, sir, we’re in the middle of parental testing and—”

“That was your excuse the other day too.”

“It’s not an excuse, it’s a reason.”

“I’m sorry?” Mr. Robertson said, raising an eyebrow. “If you can’t get to work on time, then maybe you should look at finding a new job. Your numbers aren’t good enough that you’re indispensable. Remember that, William.”

“Hey, you know what, Mr. Robertson? Fuck you. Fuck you, and your stupid moustache. And your balding head. And your goddamn stupid fucking jokes that we only laugh at out of pity. And your awful morning pep talks. Fuck you. And fuck this job. You can lick and kiss my fucking ass, you absolute sorry ass prick.”

That was what Will wanted to say. Instead, he simply replied. “I’m sorry, Mr. Robertson. It won’t happen again.”

Mr. Robertson stared at him for a long moment. “Make sure it doesn’t. Test or no test, I expect you to be on time.”


#


It had been a bad start to a crappy day. Will had to deal with several LifeTablets on the fritz (when were they going to release that software update?!) and had to calmly talk to a screaming woman who insisted that all of her contacts had been somehow erased from her LifePhone overnight. Then there was Kingston, a homeless man, dressed in his torn pants, hole-filled shoes, and stained jacket, who insisted that he had a million-dollar bill that no one would give him change for. Will had made the effort to speak to him kindly once, and now whenever he came, he always made straight for Will.

“You got change today, man?” Kingston said, through a mouth of missing teeth.

“Not today. Sorry dude,” Will had replied.

They played the same routine every few days. The man posed no threat, and Will felt sorry for him, so continued the charade. Mr. Robertson had wanted to turn the guy out every single time he walked in, and had often raised eyebrows at their security guard to do something, but Will always dealt with Kingston amiably and with the minimum of fuss. Besides, it was nice for Kingston to dream. If he had little else, he still had his dreams. Who was Will to take them away from him?

How simple life would be, Will thought, as he watched Kingston leave the store, to be able to just live life the way you thought it was, versus the way it actually was. Yes, admittedly, Kingston lived in the Skids, scrounged for food from trash receptacles and begged for money. But he always just seemed kind of… happy. He never complained about his lot in life. There was an acceptance there. Kingston never wanted anything other than what he had. And he was sure he had a million-dollar bill in his pocket. He knew he was rich. It was just everyone else’s problem they didn’t have change.

It must be nice to not want anything other than what you have. No striving for something greater. Something better. Just to live life as you were, mused Will.

“Hey. You hear?” came Dan’s voice from behind him.

Dan Hillard, a tech nerd with long hair, scraggly beard, and neck tattoo, was a co-worker of Will. He seemed to love employment at the LifeMart, and even devoted his spare time to improving his working knowledge of computers, tablets, and AR headsets, so he could assist customers better. He’d been offered promotions within the company several times but had refused them on each and every occasion. He said he just wanted to work on the floor, with “the people.”

He was also a huge gossip and loved any drama that came along. And he was wearing a big, shit-eating grin right now.

“Hear what?” Will responded.

“Mia’s coming back.”

Will’s heart skipped a beat.

“Mia. Really?” he said, trying as best, as he could to remain nonchalant.

“Yes. Really…” Dan said, with raised eyebrows.

Everyone at the LifeMart, it seemed, had seen the sparks fly between Mia Watson and Will a couple of years back. The two had gotten on like a house on fire and had just instantly clicked. She got all his stupid jokes, and he thought she was as smart and witty as all hell. She’d written poetry on her lunch breaks. Goddamn poetry. And it was good too. Will found ways to make sure their breaks lined up together, so he could bump into her at the auto caffeine vendor, and find something, anything, to talk about.

And what was worse, was that it was clear she felt the same way. A subtle touch of the hand during a staff meeting. A glance and a smile across the floor. And every time it happened, Will felt his heart heave in his chest. Goddamn this girl…

But Will had been married to Allison for years at that point. And he loved Allison. She was everything he wanted in a woman. She was smart, and funny, and cute, and sexy. He loved her laugh, and just spending time with her. She was everything.

Wasn’t she?

And so Will chose to distance himself from Mia, and watched as she went on to date several of his co-workers and reminded himself that he had a wife at home who he loved, and who loved him back.

Then Mia had gotten another job, working some low-level local government bureau position, and he hadn’t seen her since. He thought of her every time he went to the auto caffeine vendor. And every time he found himself in a bookshop in the poetry section. But these were just silly feelings. Feelings for a girl he’d never been with and never could be.

“I thought she got some government job,” said Will to Dan.

Dan shrugged. “Guess it didn’t work out. And now she’s back. Coming in later today I heard Robertson say.”

“Oh. Great.”

Dan smiled a wide knowing smile.

“What?” Will asked.

“Nothing, nothing,” Dan said, holding his hands up in mock innocence.

Dan noticed a man waving from the AR headsets and eagerly bounded over.

Will stood at the front of the store, suddenly aware of the fact that he needed a haircut.


#


Will sat eating his lunch in the break room when someone punched him in the arm.

“Ow!” he groaned and looked up to see his assailant.

It was Mia.

And dammit it if somehow she didn’t look better than he’d ever seen her before. Her caramel skin called to be kissed, her rich brown hair longed to be ruffled, and deep chocolate eyes framed by red glasses seemed to gaze into his very soul and say “Hey, I think you’re pretty cool.” She wore the banana yellow hoody of LifeMart, and somehow made it look good. She was like some kind of golden, banana-yellow goddess.

“Mia. Hey…” Will smiled, trying to keep his heart from bursting out of his chest, “Heard you were back.”

“Yeah,” she smiled, her lips parting to reveal perfect white teeth, with just the hint of a gap between the top two. “Starting back part-time tomorrow.”

“You were working at some government agency, right?”

“I was… but not for me. Too rigid. Too soul-crushing. You ever been in one of those buildings?’

“I have. Recently in fact.”

“Yeah? Which department?”

“It was… revenue. Internal Revenue. Had an issue with our taxes. Refund didn’t come through right.”

“Oh.”

There was a pause. A long pause. A pause that seemed to last a lifetime. Say something, Will. This is Mia. Say something. Say anything. Caverns were opening up underneath him. He was about to be sucked in, never to return. Why can’t you think of anything to say? Wait! Ask her about her—

“Are you still writing poetry?”

Mia smiled. “You remembered.”

“Of course. How could I forget? You’re good. Really good. What was that one? Crying for life?”

Mia smiled again, then looked down. “I haven’t written in a while.”

“You should.”

Another pause. The two smiled awkwardly at each other.

“Hey, I have another sixteen minutes of break. You wanna go and go and visit the auto caffeine dispenser?”

“Sure,” she said.

Will was in heaven.


#


They walked, talked, and drank caffeine (Will eschewed his usual muffin). It was only sixteen minutes, but it was all he needed. She was back. Mia was back. And… why the hell was he feeling this way? He was doing fine. Great in fact. He and Allison were testing for a baby. A family, his own family. He was finally going to graduate out of being a young man and into becoming a father. A real man. And this wasn’t the way fathers behaved. They stayed with their wives, and they raised their kids. Besides, there were strict government fines for divorce, and they got even stiffer when there were children involved. Yet despite all this, Will couldn’t help but sink further when Mia casually mentioned that she’d gotten out of yet another relationship. She was single again…

They arrived back at the store, and Will clocked back in, as Mia headed to Robertson’s office to fill out the appropriate rehire paperwork.

Will was on the shop floor when she walked past on her way out.

“You working tomorrow?” she asked.

“Sure am. For my sins.”

She smiled. “Me too. See you then.”

Will was so fucked…


#


Will decided not to travel via the transit pod tramway that night. He just had too muchenergy. Or was it simply because he wasn’t rushing home to see Allison? Either way, he messaged her to say he was going to be delayed at work. When she asked why, he replied that it was some training module he had to complete, and had forgotten to put it on their shared calendar.

Instead, Will walked home. Through the rushing rivers of humanity that pulsed in the heart of the city. Past the blaring, noisy transit lanes, carrying passengers up and down the gargantuan buildings. Beside the Skids, where the dregs and pariahs of society who lived in their government-supplied canvas tents that extended for blocks. But Will didn’t see any of it. He just simply felt too good. There was finally something to be excited about again. And it filled him with life. His heart felt full. It had been a long time since he’d felt this way. Hopeful. The city seemed to crush all hope out of a person. It got you and held you, and squeezed the dreams and aspirations out of you until you were compliant with the rules, until you were a mindless automaton. Like the secretary bot at the Department of Parental Standards.

The thought brought Will right back to the present. He had to go home and deal with the thing. Deal with Allison. Deal with the truth of his life. He sighed, suddenly noticing that his feet were aching. He wasn’t used to walking.

He made it up to the 84th floor of their building and unlocked the front door. Allison was instantly in front of him.

“Jesus f-ing Christ, I have had a day. This…” she smiled, looking at the eyes of the SimuBaby, who sat in a high chair at the table “…wonderful child has been… a great challenge today, and I would love some personal recuperation time to allow me to be my best self moving forward.”

She said it all with a forced smile and repeated the lines verbatim from the ‘proper communication’ page of the Department of Parental Standards that they’d studied together.

He could tell she was seething underneath, yearning to scream at Will, the world, and most of all, the SimuBaby. But their every move was being recorded. And so she kept it all in.

“You being late didn’t help either. I would have appreciated some extra communication leading into this evening to allow me to adequately plan.”

“I’m sorry. I forgot about the training. I’m back now. I can take over,” said Will.

“He hasn’t napped. Once. Maybe take him for a walk in the communal gardens?”

Within a few minutes, Will strapped on the snuggly, placed the Roger thing inside and got in the elevator to ride the extra hundred floors to the rooftop. The baby stared at him the whole way. It didn’t stare like a baby though. It stared like someone who knew what was going on in Will’s mind. It stared and stared, and didn’t blink once.

I know what you’re up to, Will, it seemed to say, with those unnatural, piercing blue eyes. I know who you’re thinking about. You’re a bad person, Will. I see you…

Will frowned away, relieved when the elevator door to the gardens slid open.

Like every building in the city, the rooftop was given over to green spaces. There was a field of grass, some trees, and even a small fountain. Will glanced down at the SimuBaby. It was still staring back at him.

“Hey, big guy. Why don’t you try and take a little nappy nap?”

The baby stared.

Will shook his head, sighed, and walked into the nearby wooded area. He bounced, and sang, trying anything to get the thing to close its creepy eyes.

His feet were still aching from the walk home, and he was relieved when he spotted a bench nearby. He headed over, and his feet seemed to groan in relief as he finally sat down.

The wooded area was calm. Relaxing. Birds chirped in the trees nearby (it was piped in, but what was the difference?), and insects hummed on flowers. At least they were real.

A man appeared on the path that Will had been walking, also carrying a baby in a snuggly. He looked exhausted, his eyes carrying deep, purple bags like heavy groceries.

“Mind if I join you?” the man asked.

“Be my guest,” Will said, gesturing to the bench.

The man sat and exhaled, and Will saw that he was carrying a real baby on his chest, sleeping soundly.

“A real one?” he said, nodding down to the child.

“Yeah,” the man said, drearily.

“I didn’t think we had any real parents in the building. They’re all one-beds here, right?”

“Yeah, we’re on a waiting list. Shouldn’t be long. How’s testing going?”

Will looked down at the SimuBaby. It had finally shut its eyes.

“It’s… fine. Hard. You know.”

“Oh, I know…” the man said, a knowing look in his eye.

“So, is it worth it?” Will said, looking down at the sleeping baby. It was a baby girl, about seven months old.

“You want my honest answer?”

“Sure.”

“No. No, it isn’t.”

“Oh?”

“It’s a goddamn pain in the fucking ass. If you think testing is hard, try having a real one. And my wife… she’s turned crazy. Totally crazy. The hormones do something to them. And suddenly, they don’t seem to care about you any more. It’s all the baby.”

Will glanced down at the thing. It was still asleep. But was it really asleep? It was a robot, after all. Did it need sleep? Will didn’t want to take the chance, so he pulled out his LifePhone, opened a note, and typed.

‘DO YOU REGRET IT?’

He passed the tab to the man. He typed and passed it back.

‘YES. ARE YOU HAVING DOUBTS?’

Will swallowed and typed.

‘YES’

The man glanced at the tab, nodded sadly, and then wrote.

‘IF YOU’RE HAVING DOUBTS, DON’T DO IT. LIVE THE LIFE YOU WANT. THERE ARE ALREADY ENOUGH PEOPLE ON THIS PLANET. WE DON’T NEED ANY MORE.’

Will looked at the message.

‘BUT IT’LL MAKE MY WIFE SO HAPPY.’

The man shrugged as if to say ‘It’s your choice, buddy…’

A gurgle came from the man’s snuggly.

“Oop. She’s awake,” the man said “Better take her back to Mommy.”

The man got up and offered his hand to Will. Will shook it. The man continued his stroll.


#


Will stared at the ceiling of their dark bedroom. The green LED light of their smoke detector stared back. He couldn’t cancel their plans. Couldn’t not go through with the tests. It was Allison. He loved her. He needed her. Didn’t he? Yes. He loved her. And he was happy.

But then there was Mia…

Sweet soft Mia. With her skin. And her legs. And her poetry. And her dimples. And her laugh. And her—

No. She’s a distraction. Snap out of it, man. You’re married. You’re happy. You’ve got everything you want.

Do you? Do you really?

Will put his pillow over his face, and tried desperately to sleep.


#


Will worked on the shop floor of the LifeMart the next day, and he passed through customers like he was in a fugue. He could feel Stephenson’s drill-like gaze boring into him, but he didn’t give a fuck. The balding twat could go and fuck himself. One of these days he was going to quit in spectacular fashion and tell the old ass exactly what he—

“Hey, handsome,” Mia said, sidling up beside him, making a good show of polishing the tablets in front of her.

“Hey…” said Will, snapping out of his daydream.

“Do you ever just want to dip your feet in the sea?”

“What?”

“I just want to feel it again, you know? My mom used to take me when I was a kid. We used to go visit my grandma on the coast. And she’d take us down to the sea. We’d paddle, and splash around.”

“Sounds great.”

“It was. Oh, it was! I’d just stand there, staring out at the big wide nothing of the ocean. So vast before me. And I just wished I could have leapt in and swam. Swam and swam. Until I found an island somewhere and lived on it. Just me.”

Mia stared off into the distance. Will smiled. He felt more awake. More alive. More.. him.

“What time do you finish today, Will?” she asked.

“Five.”

“Me too. Wanna go grab a pill or two?”

Will’s heart stopped. Was Mia Watson actually asking him out? He couldn’t. He shouldn’t. But goddamnit if every single cell in his body was yearning to say yes.

“I… can’t. I have to be back.”

Mia held his gaze for a long beat. She bit her lip. Will felt his heart break.

Then she shrugged and walked away. “Oh well. Next time.”

“Maybe I can,” Will found himself saying. Where had that voice come from? What was he doing?

She looked back over her shoulder. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. I’ll… work something out.”

“Great.”

She smiled and headed back to help a woman purchase a LifeRing.

Will couldn’t believe what was happening.


#


Day Dreamz was packed with the after-work crowd. Will had texted Allison and said that Stephenson had called an impromptu staff meeting that he had to attend, and that he’d be home as soon as he could.

Mia was at the bar, ordering them some pills. He looked at her as she stood there. She wore black and white striped leggings and a faux wool baggy sweater that dipped down dangerously low at the neckline. She had on those red glasses too. Did she know how much he loved the red glasses? She laughed at something the barman said, then headed back over with the small tray of pills and glasses of water.

“What d’you get?” Will asked.

“A couple Vivacetyl Ethanoate each. And a two Neurotranquilin.”

“Hey big spender,” laughed Will, as he popped one of the pills into his mouth.

“Well, it’s nice to connect with old friends again,” she said as she touched his hand.

She took one of the pills, handed Will the plastic glass of water, and raised hers.

“What shall we pop to?” she asked.

“To exciting futures,” he said.

“To exciting futures.”

They drank their water and popped their pills.

The drugs got to work within minutes. Will felt relaxed and let the worries of the day, of life, melt out of him.

They took the other pills, and Will felt the tension he’d been carrying around in his shoulder ebb away. It had been ages since he’d been to a pharmabar. He couldn’t actually remember the last time. It had been with Allison, maybe for a friend’s birthday, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember whose.

“So… how are you and Allison?” Mia asked, her eyes a little droopy.

“We’re fine.”

“Just fine?”

“Yeah. We’re good. Really, honestly, good.”

“You sound like you’re convincing yourself.” Mia smiled.

“No. I’m… it’s hard. Marriage is hard. No one ever tells you. The media, the movies, they make it out like marriage is this place you get to, and when you get there, you’re happy. No one tells you what a slog it is. How much hard work.”

“You wanna have kids?”

“I… don’t know.”

“Dan said you guys were testing.”

Will felt the tension creep back into his shoulders.

“Yeah. We are.”

“You didn’t say anything.”

“I didn’t.”

“Why?”

Will looked at Mia. At those deep brown eyes. At those eyes that made him feel twenty-one again.

“I don’t know.”

She stared back at him. “I do…”

She looked at his lips. Then back at his eyes. Then to his lips once more. And Will felt like he was falling. Falling into her. And he was. His face was being pulled by some gravitational force towards hers. He leaned in to kiss her and—

“Woah. Woah woah,” she said, pulling back.

“What?”

“What are you doing, Will?”

“I was… I was going to… I thought you wanted to…”

“We’re friends.”

“I’m sorry. I… I…”

“You’re married.”

“I know. God, yeah, I know. I… did I totally misjudge this?”

“Just a little.”

“What were you going to say? When you said you knew why I didn’t share about the testing.”

“I was going to say it’s personal. Like what if you fail?”

“Fuck.” Will buried his face in his hands. “I’m sorry, Mia. Maybe it’s the drugs. It’s been a lot lately.”

She put her hand on his back. “It’s okay. I should probably go though.”

“Yeah. Me too.”


#


Will caught the transit, his body contracting with embarrassment. God, why had he done that? What was he thinking? He felt like crawling into a hole and dying. Was there a place, a service somewhere that offered that? They just dig you a hole in the ground, and bury you alive. If not, he should create that. He’d be his first customer.

But he knew he had to shake it off. Had to make it appear to Allison that everything was fine. Was normal. And it would be. From now on. He would be a good husband. And when the time came, a good father.

As the elevator climbed to the 84th floor, he calmed his breath. It was fine. He hadn’t actually done anything wrong. He’d gone for a pill with a work colleague. That was all. He was still a good person. He could still look at himself in the mirror, and love and approve of himself. He was fine. He was going to be fine.

The elevator door dinged, and Will stepped out onto the landing. And then he saw his front door.

It was wide open, and a big pile of clothes was collecting on the doormat. They were his clothes. Allison appeared a moment later and dumped another clump down. She saw him, burst into tears, and rushed back inside.

“What the hell is happening?” Will said, running to the door.

“You’re a goddamn bastard!” screamed Allison from inside.

Will got to the door and saw that the same delivery man who had delivered Roger was now packing up the SimuBaby into a similar brown box.

“What? What’s going on?” he asked.

“I just go where they tell me, buddy,” said the delivery man, sealing up the box with packing tape.

Allison emerged from their bedroom with another handful of clothes.

“How could you?” she said, pushing the piled into his arms.

“How could I what?”

“Mr. Harper,” came a voice from the kitchen.

Will looked over. It was A. MacGregor, from the Department of Parental Standards

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

She strode over and handed him a LifeTablet.

“I regret to inform you that you have been deemed unfitting for parenthood,”

“What? Why? We’ve been doing everything right.”

“The evidence is there,” A. MacGregor said, pointing to the tab.

Will swiped through the images. The first was of the conversation he’d had with the man on the rooftop. His messages from his phone were saved as screenshots.

Allison dumped another bunch of clothes.

“So I was having some doubts.”

“Keep going,” A. MacGregor said.

Will swiped over again.

A CCTV still image from the LifeMart filled the screen. He and Mia were engaged in conversation.

“So? I talked with someone at work,”

“It was more than that though, wasn’t it, Will?”

In the doorway stood Mia. Only now she was dressed in a smart skirt suit. All warmth was gone from her eyes, replaced now with a stern stare, just like that of A. MacGregor.

“Mia? What’s going on?”

“I didn’t come back to work at the LifeMart. I work for the government now, Will. When you came up for testing, they looked into your past and found that I would be the perfect way to test your fidelity. Unfortunately, you failed.”

“It was… none of it was real?”

Mia shrugged.

“What… what about her? Her test?” He pointed at Allison.

“She was tested,” A. MacGregor said. “Hank here hit on her a week after the delivery of your SimuBaby. Actually asked her out on a date.”

He stared at the delivery man, Hank, who smiled a guilty smile, that seemed to say “Hey, I was just doing my job.”

Then he looked to Allison. “And what did you say?”

“I said I was flattered, but I was married,” she said, fuming.

“An adequate response,” added MacGregor. “Now. Sign there please.”

Will stared into space, as his world fell around him.

#


Will tried as best he could to erect the canvas tent he’d been supplied with by re-housing officials as he’d left his apartment. The divorce documents had arrived moments earlier, sent from Allison’s lawyer. He’d signed them. The least he could do was give Allison the ability to find another partner. She was still young after all. Moments after that, he received his job termination from the LifeMart. Moments after that, he received notification of his government divorce fine that took his account into the red.

All he had to his name was a roughly packed suitcase of clothes. And this damned tent.

“Hey, brother, you need help with that?” came a familiar voice from behind Will.

It was Kingston, dressed in his usual raggedy clothes, and smiling his toothless grin.

“Sure,” Will said, and the man bounded over and started helping Will put up his tent.

“What happened to you, man?” Kingston asked.

“The parental testing shit.”

“You kidding me? Same thing happened to me, brother.” Kingston laughed. “Shit, I told you. They’re always watching you.”

Will shook his head, then buried it in his hands.

“It ain’t so bad,” Kingston added. “We got everything we need down here in the Skids.”

“Right,” Will said.

“And besides, I got this billion-dollar bill. All I need is some change.”

Will chuckled. And his chuckling turned to laughter. He laughed so much he cried. It was all a joke. Just one big fucking cosmic joke. He laughed until his sides hurt. And then he laughed some more.

And for the first time in an age, Will Harper felt free...







Thanks for reading! What did you think? Let me know in the comments below.


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