An Uncertain Electricity
Neil rode down thirteen floors in the elevator at seven am – the end of his shift – and exited through a dawn-tinged foyer. He was drained, but it was a good, satisfying depletion. Neil feared letting in that thought of satisfaction, though, lest it prevent him from developing the appropriate level of nervousness required for his evening shift. His colleague Sal gave a half-salute at the door, and Neil gave a wave. It was a good thing he was attracted to her. It could make his work so fruitful it might lead to a promotion.
The difficulty with Emily was also useful, he thought, as he walked up the waking city street to the train station. He let himself, just for a moment, absorb snatches of birdsong and notice that the temperature – around 14 degrees Celsius – was perfect for what he was wearing: the padded bomber jacket and chinos. He’d sleep only a few hours, and then he’d rouse himself to remember that Emily had been out all night with her other lover; that Neil had not been able to impregnate her; that his father was waiting for him to call; that he was only just meeting his KPIs; and that Sal was probably more a monogamous sort, so he shouldn’t bother being attracted to her. He’d deliberately leave for his shift just a little late so he could be panicked about being tardy and getting fired. He’d put the news on as he was getting ready, absorbing the shouting of loud words over other loud words and the occasional visual of an explosion or an animation of the projected spread of a disease.
The apartment was empty when Neil arrived home. His post-adrenalised heart slumped and settled somewhere around his stomach. While waiting for the kettle to boil he considered his contribution to the process, the electricity running through its wires, and he fingered the fuzzy edge of a used electrode pad that had found its way into his pocket. It had been about ten years since they’d discovered they could power the city on nervous energy, and about a year since he’d moved into the Disconcerted department. Prior to that he’d been in Observation. He thought of his colleague Sal’s face distorted through several thick glass cubicles. The glass workspaces, connected in rows, enhanced self-consciousness. His pulse quickened as he remembered her pacing, pulling at her clothing so that portions of flesh showed at the gaps – and that black lace when she lifted her arm. She was very, very good at working herself up. It excited him, but he told himself: Bottle it.
He thought of Alec, who had been on shift in the cube next to him. How he’d lay down on the floor and held a photograph aloft. And then shed tears. Neil knew there could be a way of working that was to be physically still, and to let a build happen behind the skin, behind the ribs, but that had not been what Alec was achieving. He wouldn’t last long, Neil thought, if he let himself break like that – let the oxytocin flow, flooding the worry with calm. In sadness was appreciation, Neil knew, not fear.
He sat at the two-person dining table in their apartment with his tea. The door opened. Emily entered, neat in yesterday’s clothes, her black hair lightly shining with grease. When she kissed him hello there came a waft of sweat and sex. He tried to linger on the kiss but she pulled away, smiled with gentleness. He tried to snapshot the face – one of slight pity, or at least he could see it as such for later purposes. She touched the kettle to determine heat then poured her own tea – green – and joined him, though she would have to jump in the shower soon to get to work on time.
‘How was…?’ He raised his eyebrows.
He saw that she couldn’t help glow a little. ‘Fun, different. Nice.’
‘Okay,’ he sipped. There was a stone in his gut.
‘She likes men too, you know,’ Emily said.
‘I’m perfectly happy with just you,’ he said.
She looked like she wanted to say more, but was holding back.
‘You can say anything,’ he said.
‘For you or for your work?’
‘It’s hard to tell what… layer you’re considering me on these days,’ she said. ‘You’ve become more ambitious.’
‘Well, you know I’m just finally, I don’t know, happy I’ve found something I can do well.’
‘Happy is a funny way to put it.’
‘I know,’ he said, laughing a little, taking a large breath. Should he be that relaxed? He tried tensing his shoulders.
Always good at reading him, she saw, stood up and walked over, pressed her fingers into his neck. ‘Not yet,’ she said.
‘Honey, I can’t,’ he said. ‘I have a long shift tonight.’
‘You want me to yell at you instead?’
‘Okay,’ he said.
‘I mean, not if you don’t want to.’
She sighed. ‘I know what I want, but I don’t think you do anymore.’
‘I want to make you happy,’ he said, feeling that stone in his gut.
She shook her head. ‘You know you look grey, like a ghost? The city is literally sucking your energy.’
‘But it pays well, baby. The house you want…’
‘No. Don’t act like you’re doing this all for me. Uh-uh,’ she said, raising her hand to block his words. ‘All bringing that up shows is that you were once able to hear me.’
She left the room.
He heard the shower turn on. Perhaps he could imagine a more dramatic confrontation, exaggerate it, push it out, create nightmares for his nap. It really was a big shift tonight, his longest of the week – he had to be ragged, wretched. Had to be incapable of shutting out that cortisol flood. He had to smell that lion nipping at his Achilles.
He should go to her.
He pushed open the bathroom door. She glanced at him from behind the shower screen. The scene in Psycho came into his head, shower rings popping open and blood pooling down the drain. He needed to add a few more horror movies to his Fear Cloud, he remembered.
‘How do you imagine you will die?’ he called out over the water.
She sighed, didn’t answer for a moment, then said resignedly, ‘Choking would be the worst.’
‘But is it worse if you’re at home alone or if you’re surrounded by people and no one manages to help anyway.’
She turned the taps off, stepped out of the shower and started rubbing the towel across her body. He felt an erection stir. But he forced himself instead to think of her clutching her throat, gasping for air. Her eyes bloodshot.
‘You’re imagining it, aren’t you?’ she said, tilting her head at him, hair dripping down her shoulder.
‘You can picture me falling down the stairs if you like,’ he smiled.
‘I don’t need to do that. I work in construction.’
‘If I just get this promotion,’ he said, standing up, ‘we can go to the new fertility clinic. The private one.’ He took the towel from her and began to rub her back in small circles. She seemed to get impatient, though, and snatched it back off him. ‘I know you said we should move on, but I know you must be… pushing down the worry it will never happen.’
She looked into his eyes. His shoulders unclenched. He reached for her hand. Just for a moment.
‘What horrible things will you imagine for our child?’
She let go of his hand and left the bathroom, towel wrapped tightly around her.
Perfect, he thought. I’m an atrocious disappointment.
It was difficult to achieve authentic nervousness. There was little scarcity, what with readily available cheap lab proteins and this new source of energy. The universal basic income would put a roof over your head but wasn’t enough to dampen the desire for greater affluence, status or class. It was still capitalism, but with a readjusted baseline. So one liked, but didn’t necessarily need, extras. The government was stable, fairly benevolent, and strong in a crisis. The country was its own continent and thus far away from many conflicts, though they were drawn in occasionally. Crime levels had also decreased since the introduction of the UBI. Most of the yelling on TV was about who deserved to live here, about taxes, about categorisations and systems and the identities within them.
The company Neil worked for, Sure Energy, spent a strong amount of resources on staff development. Workers in the Disconcerted department didn’t have to only rely on their own stimulus (though independent work was encouraged) – there were experience designers and also fear assistants who continuously strove to find innovative ways to activate the employees on the floor.
When Neil arrived for his shift that night, he was told he would be met at his cubicle door by one such assistant. The blinds were pulled on the inside and he couldn’t see what was in store. As he waited, he saw his boss, Terry, walk past the repository at the end of the row of glass cubicles. Terry was jingling coins in his pocket, which was something he did often – alternating it with the clicking of a pen – while he was talking to them. He glanced at Neil and then looked away again and the stone in Neil’s gut shifted to his bowels. To get to walk around like that, unnerving people.
‘Big storm coming tonight.’ He’d been so distracted he hadn’t seen Sal arrive at the cubicle three down. Her cables already snaked off her head and body, Medusa-like.
‘Oh yeah?’ he said.
‘Yeah, I’m glad I don’t like them. I kind of channel my childhood dog,’ she said. Her hair was fluffy at the edges from the humidity outside. ‘She ended up running off eventually during one of them and got hit by a car.’ She scrunched up her face. The snakes from the electrodes at her temples tilted up on either side.
‘Terrible… poor thing,’ he said. And he wanted her to go on. To tell him everything about channelling a shivering dog. But then he noticed he was feeling relief, rather than stress, by talking to a woman who understood. He had to get back into work mode. ‘Freak out tonight,’ he said to her, shutting down their conversation with the saying they used in place of ‘good luck’. She nodded, bit her lip, and opened the door to her cube.
A petite, pear-shaped white woman in a loud apricot suit arrived beside him – one of the fear assistants. She nodded a greeting and unlocked a storage box next to the cube.
‘Something new tonight, I assume? New VR?’ he asked her, as she began to attach his electrodes and neatly coil the cables around his body to be plugged in once inside.
‘No…’ she said, looking apprehensive herself, her thin eyebrows running toward the crease in her forehead.
‘Not a live-streamed eating contest again…’
‘Invisible trap doors… electric shocks… a maths test conducted in the nude?’
She continued shaking her head, bunching the wires at his hip, but even though he was being wry, she didn’t crack a smile.
She said, ‘We need enough power in the grid to kick over the generators if the grid is struck by lightning in the storm. Potentially more than once.’
Her tone was simultaneously apologetic and cautioning.
Her hands shook as she pushed open the cubicle door. He followed her in. She connected him to the power storage unit and then began to raise the blinds so the fluorescents could flood in.
In the centre of the room was a desk with a tablet on it. That’s it? he thought.
‘Johnson has cooked up something good for you,’ the fear assistant said. Johnson was one of Sure’s top designers.
She hooked Neil’s wires up to the portable unit by the door. The unit captured the energy and at the end of his shift he’d take it and plug it in to the repository on his floor and an assistant would help him disconnect.
‘Good luck,’ she said, closing the door.
He sat down and swiped the tablet on. It scanned his face and auto-played a program:
101 WAYS REAL CHILDREN HAVE DIED
Oh, he thought. And that familiar, fluttery sick feeling started up in his gut. Would there be simply words, descriptions, or would there be…
Images, ah. Videos he could click on. And what’s this? Holographic footage, for some of the newer ones. He read Johnson’s brief notes, including the words: The imagery is all from real-life case files, home videos. No re-enactments.
He scrolled down the menu. It wasn’t in linear order, as to when the incidents – deaths – occurred, but was grouped in areas such as ‘water-based’, ‘vehicle-based’, ‘household accidents’, ‘disease’, ‘murder’ and all the way down to ‘miscellaneous’.
He clicked miscellaneous and went for the first video and a holo popped up of an adorable, chubby child, maybe two years old, giggling and holding an adult’s hand (cut off so the hand hovered disembodied in the air). They were walking down a street, on the sidewalk, when he heard the bark of a dog behind them. The baby turned, its curls bouncing. The camera was dropped but, of course, facing the scene, preserving the image as the animal sunk its teeth into…
He pressed pause, swallowing the bile in his throat. He could feel his heart knocking at his ribs. This was so effective that it would be okay if he just took a little break here and there. These people were lucky they had a child in the first place. He had to push through this horror so he can make the same thing happen for him and Emily. That was still what he wanted too, wasn’t it?
After tonight would he only ever picture that child in danger?
No, he’d know everything to avoid. He could do this. For Emily. Because he knew, not just from her coldness today, but from the general difference in their relationship lately, that she was slipping away. It wasn’t the lover – she’d always had flings, he’d never been entirely comfortable with it (which he used) but he respected her needs. It was something else. If he could just get a promotion, they could move forward on all those plans they’d made.
He pressed play again. He let himself imagine that it wasn’t a strange child who was being torn to pieces. He imagined it was their own. He opened the next video – a drowning – and did the same. He was sweating; he thought he might pass out. He had to stay right on the knife’s edge. All night. He had to get that promotion.
Around three am, the storm started outside. Thunder cracked and rain lashed the windows of the building. The city lights flickered. He felt the rumble of the mini-grid kick in in their building. The stores would need replenishing. He needed a break, though. He wanted to hear Emily’s voice. Or maybe Sal would be on break too.
He picked up his unit and walked past the row of glass cubicles, but he didn’t nod at Sal because he saw she was mid-scream. He continued around the corner into the break room. It was hard to get around, all the furniture being squashed together in the tiny space to improve the quality of discomfort. He sat on a chair that had one leg shorter than the others and pulled out his phone. ‘U up? x’ he texted. She was a night owl like him.
‘Yes but with Camille,’ she wrote back. No ‘x’.
He dragged his unit over to the fridge. They always left some ferociously spicy or bitter food in there so you’d be nervous about what you ate. He pulled out a safe-enough looking cheese sandwich, unwrapped it and opened the bread to peer for any bugs. All good. He took a bite.
Thunder cracked outside the window and he jumped.
In the morning, ragged and stringy, he placed his unit fat with power into the repository. A fresh fear assistant stood by, tapping on her tablet.
‘Incredible job,’ she said to him, shaking her head in wonder, her long ponytail tapping each shoulder. ‘Over a thousand epineps. Wait right here.’ He swayed on his feet as she disappeared around a corner to the management offices. He couldn’t wait to get home and sleep. He had two days off so there was time to feel.
The assistant was back. ‘Come this way for a moment, please?’ she said.
She led him to Terry’s office. The wiry man who seemed to vibrate with a life-long nervousness stood hunched in the doorway, jingling the coins in his pocket. Terry was a paragon of excellence in the field, Neil knew. He still mucked in when needed, but he was brilliant at running the show – headhunting designers, signing off on content acquisitions, strategising new ways of working.
‘C-come in!’ he said. ‘This is the comfy office,’ he smiled. Neil thanked him and sat on a beautifully even armchair facing a symmetrical desk. They even had tones of blue in here. ‘I know we’ve had conversations in the other one before.’ Neil’s interview, for example, had been in the spacious, echoey other office that looked like a set of a German Expressionist film.
‘Thank you, sir,’ Neil said, his voice hoarse.
‘Rough night, hey?’
‘With pleasure, sir.’
‘Good, good.’ Terry nodded to the assistant and she left them alone. ‘I know you’ve been waiting for this chat, Neil. And you’ve really gone above and beyond this past night, so it’s time.’
Neil’s nerves were frayed but his heart bloomed with hope.
‘We’re giving you a promotion.’
Neil arrived home, a huge bunch of roses in his arms. He’d texted ahead to tell Emily he would love for her to be home. That he had good news. Maybe they could share a bottle of red wine, like they used to. He could hold her while they talked about what they would do next. They could be tender and relaxed, tonight, in celebration.
He opened the door and called out, ‘Babe!’
Emily appeared at the bedroom door. ‘Hi.’ She looked trepidatious.
‘Honey, everything is going to be okay. I got the promotion.’ He thrust the flowers towards her. She always loved roses.
‘That’s the good news?’ she said.
She put her head in her hands. ‘I should have known.’ She went back into the bedroom and he followed her, puzzled. She tore open her cupboards and drawers, threw a suitcase on the bed.
He placed the roses on a chest of drawers. Stood with open arms, to show he was listening.
‘I thought maybe you’d come to your senses,’ she said. ‘That you were going to tell me you quit.’
The exhaustion hit him. He crumpled like her T-shirts on the bed, slid right down to the floor. ‘I don’t understand,’ he said. ‘It’s not too late to have everything we wanted.’
He thought of those nights, in this very apartment, when they’d sit up late, talking over each other about all the things they could do with their lives.
She bent down and touched his shoulder. ‘You haven’t listened to what I’ve wanted for a long time.’
He remembered a night recently, when they’d both been home, and he’d ducked out to get a bottle of shiraz. He’d come home and she’d said, ‘Oh, I already bought some pinot noir.’ But when he poured her a glass she took it to the kitchen table and got out her laptop. He’d drank his alone in front of the TV.
‘I’ve got the weekend off. We’ll go to a movie…’
She kept packing up.
‘Honey, you don’t want the house, the kids?’
‘Not with you.’ She zipped up her suitcase. ‘Not anymore.’
And he couldn’t help, just a glimmer there in the back of his mind, of thinking of how good this would be, to play over and over again. Those tears in her eyes. The prospect of this apartment empty of her. Of not knowing if he’ll ever find love or companionship like this again. The idea that he might die alone. Yes, he thought, sitting on the floor as she walked out of the apartment, this is good stuff.