The mother opens her eyes.
The babel that roused her from sleep merges into tones, rhythm, and harmony.
It’s a new song.
She hums along and leisurely swipes her hands through the air. Online content open and close with the sweep-like gestures of her wrists and fingers. Her attentions are on preferred forums that erupt with chatter. She scrolls through the feeds, but is unable to find where she left off the previous night.
The mother turns her focus to this morning’s trends; where an early bird icon swoops in. She swipes to accept, and it opens with a flare of confetti.
She’s been awarded D.O. credits!
She flicks the blue credits into her account, and they give a jingle as they go. Her credit numbers recalculate, from their pride of place, at the top-left corner of her vision board. It’s grown to a sizable sum.
The trending page vibrates for her attention. And a few upgrades catch her eye, but she ultimately swipes these by. The mother watches in real time as one is snatched up. The file flashes and minimizes out of sight. She filters out the rest of the available upgrades. Her vision pulses once to recalibrate to her specifications.
An impressive show of new updates have been unveiled overnight. The mother tags her favorites as she browses. She’s about ready to swipe up a flash deal but wavers at the last moment. The deal dematerializes out of frame and right through her fingers.
An alert pings and she startles and blinks back to herself. She snaps her windows closed and abandons her sleeping chambers.
It takes several podcasts and songs - that new one from the morning played again- before the mother is almost finished with her hair. Her childhood friend calls it natural coffee. The mother only ever calls it brown. She pins it back away from her right ear and smiles when her CL device gleams back at her. It’s seated behind her ear, and the receiver continues on below her skin. It connects her to the city. Her name is even printed along its surface in tidy script.
Another alert pings and she swipes up the live feed to her child’s chambers. She’s awake and in the lavender dress that was set out for her.
She’s already spruced up her bedding. The duvet cover is spread and straightened along the edges. Her turtle and bird plushies are arranged just so.
Soft light begins to stream in through the narrow window, and its rays compete with the overhead light strips.
Her child starts to play with the freesias streamed about. They’re synthetic refined and fragranced. The soft blush of colors are quite becoming against the otherwise ascetic walls.
The mother and her child put on their shoes together- sensible pumps and gleaming slip-ons respectfully. They leave the housing complex and head for The Education Center.
Her child starts to progress out of Initial Introductions and into Advanced Programs today. She’s a smart little thing, and the mother intends to reward her. They bypass the mother’s pod car and continue on foot.
They reach an advertisement wall that spans the length of a city block. The mother’s vision board chirps and vibrates when her CL’s algorithm comes into scannable range. The new song swans in looking to be played again.
She swipes it all away as her child darts through an entryway. The mother ducks in after her and wobbles in her heels for the effort.
City Maps calls this place behind the wall- the nature square.
The trees are easily three-levels tall. Their spectrum of verdant and amber-hued leaves blanket limbs and walkways indiscriminate of method.
Her child adores it.
Her head scans the area. Brown hair- natural coffee, her friend would correct- sways in the air along with the surrounding flora.
The mother watches as her child’s mouth parts and stretches into a grin. She smiles too and swipes credits into an update file and labels it- Teeth Alignment.
Then the mother raises her head past all the green. The surrounding buildings reach up to the sky and dwarf even the tallest of trees. They stand shoulder to shoulder and make a blue square out of that sky.
The mother notices that the air doesn’t smell anything like synthetic refined freesias.
Her child lingers at the exit- her back to the sea of pod vehicles. One of her feet still lingers on the stoned pathway. The mother had worried that the walk would scuff up her child’s updated shoes. Their opalescent sheen was listed as ‘eye-catching’ and ‘dazzling’.
The reviews were accurate. The shoes shine.
A quiet sigh is all it takes for her child to turn away from the riot of color. She reaches up and clasps her hand with the mother’s. They cross the street together and continue on their way.
The front of The Education Center is perpetually a place of organized chaos. The self-parking pod cars do so in their designated loading zone. The sleek shells lined up with precision.
It’s the mothers that are the chaos. They clamor and clump together in loose circles to coo and awe over charming updates and, in some cases, even bolder upgrades. Their hands and arms swipe and gesticulate through the air.
Credits are exchanged. Digital acquisitions are uploaded straight into accounts. Physical items will arrive within the hour.
The mother regards the white pod vans that streak up and down the street. The city’s logo flashes as they go.
The D.O. guarantees all deliveries within the hour.
Day and night.
Return pickups have the same guarantee. Credit vouchers are awarded for every return, and their value is equivalent to each reacquisition.
The system is efficient. The D.O. developed it, and the generations of implementation have streamlined it to its current refinement.
The mother makes sure to point out the Advanced Programs building across the street to her child, then nods in permission for her to join the other children. Her child bounces away, and shows off her opalescent shoes in a twirl that unfurls her dress from around her knees. The children show their unmitigated approval and encourage her to twirl about again. She does, and a giggle is added to the mix of shining shoes and unfurling fabric.
It’s an overall proud show of credits.
The mother catches sight of her childhood friend when she turns to leave.
Her friend is bent on one knee as she places a kiss on a familiar child’s thick crown of wavy hair.
The two mothers were promoted out of the Education Center at the same time. They first noticed each other in Initial Introductions. They lost track of each other in Advanced Programs. The mother specializes in accounting, and her friend in aesthetics. They reunited on promotion day and each was pleased to see the other.
They continue to see each other.
Her friend says she can easily pick the mother out of the crowd. The mother is getting better at doing the same.
It’s taken practice.
Her friend updates her appearance constantly. ‘Fresh’ is the term that frequents the forum feeds lately.
She definitely looks fresh today. Her friend’s hair was blonde last time she saw her. Today she is a striking brunette in a crisp lapis jumpsuit. A closer examination reveals all her accessories to be a variety of blue this morning.
Her friend catches sight of her and, with arms thrown wide, swarms up to the mother and hugs her close. She smells of the ocean and other scents that remind the mother of that one time when she was brought to the sea. Memories crush her like the dark crashing waves on that fine white sand. She had been there with her own mother that day.
Her friend squeezes her again and leans in close.
“Good morning, darling.” She greets directly into the mother’s CL. It’s a curious habit that her friend has kept. The nickname is curious as well. No one else calls her ‘darling’.
“You’ve upgraded again.” The mother points to the obvious.
“Oh yes, darling.” Her friend replies with a smile as she sweeps her hand through silky hair.
“I tried my best, you see. But I’m an Aesthetics DR. Clients look to me to make them the best versions of themselves. I have to stay fresh. And hair is such an important part of my work. It was imperative that I upgrade.”
“Of course.” The mother replies, and nothing else needs to be said. They update their schedules to include a shared lunch break and quickly lose sight of each other in the flocks of concentrated mothers.
The mother walks to her office building for the first time. Her strides pep along to catchy songs. The click clacks of her heels act as an accompanied drum beat.
Her office is D.O. standard-issue except for her chair. That was her second credit acquisition, and admittedly, a bit of a splurge. She works as an accountant like her own mother had been.
It’s to be expected. Data reports show the preference to gravitate towards the familiar.
Her mother had been a renowned accountant. She handpicked her clients and managed their accounts with a meticulous eye. She implemented her own practices and upgraded to the offshore Islands with a hefty acquisition of credits. She left her career to her own child and, for that, receives a per diem.
That day on the beach had been a reunion party for her mother and her promoted class. It lasted from sunrise to sunset. And when the ocean started to swallow up the last rays of light, the party began to move their celebrations to the awaiting underwater rail cars.
Mothers said goodbye to their children.
Her mother’s final words to her had been, “Work hard. I’ll see you on the Islands.”
And then, in a sweeping of waves, she was gone.
Now, the mother spends her time with numbers. It’s an easy process.
“I knew you were mine the moment you became the head of The Mathletes.” Her own mother liked to say.
Life in the city continues to flourish. Still, not everyone likes to manage their credits. Even more so have little desire to try. That’s her job. Everyone upgrades to the Islands. The amount of credits they take with them is the only deviation. She ensures that all her clients have a little nest egg for that highly anticipated date.
She spends the first half of her day just like that. She goes through a client’s account and returns acquisitions that have become obsolete. Some of the updates she finds are particularly amusing. Some even border on the absurd.
One client has a jaunty countdown clock pinned to her vision board. It’s set to the day of her Island Upgrade. She’s from the mother’s own class, but she doesn’t have the slightest recollection of her.
Another client has a fondness for the popular simulation game, Island Life. She plays it from morning to night. One of the first tasks the mother performed was to update her away from her short-term subscription plan. It was a simple calculation assessment that saves her client significant credits.
The mother snaps closed a newly balanced account, and then enhances the live feed that shows her child’s lesson room. Numerical puzzles flash across the display. Most have been completed- some are clearly incorrect. A spot of color catches the mother’s attention where clear margins should be. She pans in closer and the smear of color resolves into a cluster of doodles.
All plants and a variety of flowered assortments.
The mother sifts through her saved files. She selects EV-Plants. Its contents arrange themselves into tidy rows.
All plants and a variety of flowered assortments.
None are synthetic refined.
These items are heralded as, ‘Alive!’ And the amount of credits for such an acquisition borders on the absurd.
An alert reminds the mother of her lunch appointment. She snaps her fingers closed. The file, and the colorful imagery, minimizes out of sight back into her memory bank.
Her friend is already seated when the mother arrives. A quick glance at her clock confirms that she’s late.
The mother finagles with her settings until she’s able to adjust her ETA’s to account for walking. It was difficult to find.
She’s quick to take her seat and apologize.
A flutter of gold-painted fingernails are equally quick to absolve her.
The mother smiles.
The fingernails had been turquoise this morning.
They peruse the menu with absent flicks of their fingers. The mother selects cheese on toast and her favorite sweet tea over ice. She hovers over a glazed sugar cookie, but ultimately swipes the menu up and away. Then she flicks through some of her open tabs to pass the time before her lunch arrives. The countdown clock reads 4:32 and counting.
Her meal arrives early!
The mother smiles down at the elegant plating. She does a double-take when she catches sight of her friend’s plate. It’s easily the highest credited meal on the menu. Her friend quirks a fine eyebrow, then gives a cheeky wink.
They eat together and swipe through midday flash opportunities. Duration times for each item are random, and that makes for a frenetic fight for acquisitions. The mother makes a zippy grab on the closing seconds of the meal. A whole measure of mint-colored paint.
The mother places her napkin on the table, feeling a warmth in her cheeks that travels down her neck.
She’s not even completely out of her seat when an alert pings. The icon hops up and down to indicate that it’s a voice message. The mother swipes to accept.
Her friend crosses her cutlery across her half-consumed tenderloin entrée, and freshens up her hair with the backs of her hands.
The mother has to retake her seat and tap the recording to play a second time.
“Terribly sorry. Thought I’d make the light. On the clock, deliveries in under an hour and all, you see.”
Two more notifications arrive on the heels of the replay. One is a video file. The other is a credit voucher.
The mother accepts them with a swipe from both hands.
The video is a 4 second loop that shows her child waiting to cross to Advanced Programs. The lights flash to indicate that it’s her turn to cross. She steps off the curb, and a white pod van drives right through her.
The loop begins again, and the mother peers at the credit that hovers in a pile of confetti. It’s a meal voucher. The same meal that her friend had just ordered.
The mother comes back to herself still seated at the table. Her friend sits next to her and holds out another sweet tea over ice. She’s always been so generous with her credits.
The mother accepts the tea with one hand and sends the files to her friend with the other.
“Just tragic, darling.”
“I don’t know what to do next.” The mother admits into her tea.
“You just have to sign. The D.O. will take care of the rest.” The mother’s friend taps her own CL with a perfectly polished fingernail.
Two alerts ping near simultaneously before she can say, “Sign what?”
The icons glow blue. The D.O.’s logo revolves in slow synchronized turns.
She opens up the first file, and her face scrunches. She swipes open the second, skims then closes both files with a snap of her closing fist.
“What are the other options?”
It turns out that the only other option, besides signing the D.O.’s documents, is to visit The D.O. Center.
The mother has never been. Neither has her friend.
She sends an inquiry. Her calendar updates and a prerecorded voice asks for confirmation. The appointment is in 15 minutes. She swipes to accept.
The mother double backs for her pod car to make it on time.
The D.O. Center is a surprisingly squat building at the heart of the city.
Signs lead her to an underground parking garage. She takes the tunnel down, and her pod car malfunctions for the first time. The self-parking feature refuses to engage. The mother twitches behind the steering wheel at a bit of a loss. It takes her three tries to wrangle it between the lines of a parking space that flashes- DR | 1N9.
The mother sweats in her seat. She notices the quiet next.
She taps at her CL in the vain hope that a touch will bring everything back. Her feeds are gone. There is nothing to swipe through. No music to listen to.
The echo of her footsteps chase her to the elevator. Its doors open and waiting. She’s automatically taken to level 6. The mother jolts when she feels the lift go down. There are a total of 9 levels displayed on the wall.
She peeks out of the double doors, and a woman wearing amber stands there. All her hair is the color of that sandy beach.
“My CL,” the mother begins, before the woman holds up a hand.
“Yes. They’re inoperable here.”
“You don’t have one?” The mother’s voice rings through the corridor she’s led down. She eyes the woman’s unadorned ear.
“No,” is all the woman says, and her eyes crinkle with her smile.
The mother is taken to an office. The woman gestures for her to be seated and excuses herself from the room.
Her favorite sweet tea and what looks to be a sugar cookie have been placed before her. The mother takes hold of the tea- sips its cool contents and looks about the space. There are snapshots of trees along the walls. Potted plants are situated about the room.
The mother reaches out her fingers and pinches the leaves of a stately fern.
It is not synthetic refined.
The mother snatches her fingers back when the woman in amber returns to the office. She drops the torn leaf beneath her chair and straightens in her seat.
There’s an actual device in the woman’s hand. The mother has never seen one before. She only has the faintest recollection of them from her lessons at The Education Center. Her instructors had one thing to say about them- outdated.
The woman uses her fingers to type. And the mother can hear it!
A steady tap tap not too dissimilar from rain drops on windows. Her child likes that sound. Her productivity lowers on every rainy day. The Education Center had outlined possible curriculum updates. The mother read through the report but declined every change.
The device illuminates the woman’s face. She has a peculiar skin condition. Her skin droops and splotches in places. She hands over the device, and the mother can see that the marks have spread all the way to her hands.
The mother sets down her tea to cradle the device. It feels awkward in her lap.
The document on the screen is addressed to her. It’s the same one as before; still perfunctory short and to the point.
The incident that occurred was not conducted with malicious intent. An apology and compensation has been provided.
There is a box to sign.
The mother signs it this time. It comes out more of a hideous scrawl. She’s never had to draw her name before.
She squints at it until the woman reaches across the desk.
She hands off the device, and accepts it back after the woman tinkers about with it for a bit.
There’s the second document. It’s equally succinct.
Her property has been irrevocably damaged. Authorization is needed to decommission.
There is a box to sign.
The mother doesn’t sign.
The woman tilts her head.
The mother looks at the woman, at the device- its blue surface gleams in the light- then casts her gaze back to the fern with one leaf ripped off.
“I have credits to cover all surgical expenses, you see.”
“I see. Please follow me.” The woman stands, and the mother follows her back into the elevator.
They go down.
A doctor, from the looks of the blue scrubs, is there outside the elevator.
“Please follow me.”
The mother follows.
The woman wearing amber stays in the elevator.
The mother is led to an examination room.
A metal table is at its center. Her child is laid out upon it. Another medical personnel is there with gloved hands on a tray of surgical equipment.
The mother’s feet pull her in closer to the table. Her child is awake, and her eyes are dark pools on her small face.
“We understand that you have some questions,” says the first doctor.
“Yes, I wanted to know the extent of injury. The documents upstairs didn’t go into specifics, you see. Restorative surgeries are highly accredited, and I can make the exchange.”
The mother looks down upon her child. She only has one shoe on. Blue-purple-white glints in the overhead light. Where’s the other one?
Ripped off from impact?
In the gutter?
And the mother ponders the absurdity of it. What good is there to only having one shoe? She’ll need to make an up— her hands freeze midair when she realizes that she can’t.
The woman upstairs used the word- inoperable.
The mother’s fingers flutter across the surface of her CL.
“We’ve made tremendous achievements in the field of surgeries. However, an upgrade may be the wisest choice here. This is only your first child after all,” says the second, whose hands now rove over the glinting tools.
A feeling slides in on the mother, and she hastens to explain. “Yes, she’s my first. I hadn’t planned to upgrade to a second, you see.”
Both doctors raise their eyebrows.
And the mother gets it. This is something that she’s never voiced.
Not out loud.
Her own mother had always told her with a gleam of pride in her voice, “I upgraded six times before I decided on you,”
“I knew you were mine the moment you became the head of The Mathletes,” she would finish.
Her childhood friend is well on her way to double digits. She made a full upgrade because of her last child’s hair.
“I have to upgrade again, darling,” her friend had said the day before. “I had hoped that her hair would thicken. But, oh darling, it’s just being so troublesome. I’m an Aesthetics DR. My child reflects back on me, you see.”
And that was that. This morning the mother had seen the upgrade. A child with thick wavy locks.
Now the mother looks down at her own child.
“A full upgrade is unnecessary.” The mother states and her spine, for a moment, feels like that of a trunk of a tree.
“We see,” says the second doctor, and then takes a pair of longish pincers in hand. One of her child’s toes is pinched. It’s squeezed and twisted until there is a terrible crunch that reverberates around the room. Her child doesn’t stir. She doesn’t cry at all.
The mother stares and feels something creep in below her skin.
“Neurological damage,” the first doctor provides. “We’ve made remarkable aesthetic advancements, but injuries such as these still allude us. Neurons and synapses are a tricky business. Your child’s case is severe. There’s no way to know if she will ever regain any of her lower body mechanics. She will void and defecate herself.”
The second doctor puts down the pincers, “You’ll be upgraded to the Islands soon enough. Your child’s complications will remain here in the city.”
The tide crashes in with threats of a flood now imminent.
“Your child will be here in pain,” the second doctor concludes.
And there it is. The feeling that has slipped into all the quiet spaces.
The mother names it Dread.
There is little cause for pain in the city. Updates are there. Updates keep everyone happy.
The mother looks down at her child. Her child looks back at her.
Pain. Lasting pain.
An update can’t make it go away. An update can’t fix what’s been broken.
“An upgrade.” The mother breathes the words on a wisp of air.
“Are you certain? You will have to sign.” The first doctor explains and pulls out a device.
The mother looks at the doctor, at the device- its blue surface gleams in the light- then casts her gaze back to her child with one shoe ripped off.
“I’d like to make an upgrade.” The mother says and signs her name in the box.
It’s another sketchy attempt.
The doctors begin to move about the room.
“Escort her back to the lift,” the second tells the first, and the mother startles.
“No, that’s— well, I should stay?” The mother tilts her head, and her eyes and eyebrows scrunch together as though one feature.
The doctors pause to consider each other. Finally, the first one says, “Why would you want to stay?”
“I’m her mother.” Her mouth makes it a statement. The rest of her face makes it a question.
The doctors shrug, and a syringe is procured. Its liquid is rosy under the lights.
The mother looks at it and finds it pretty.
The second doctor slides the needle into the crook of her child’s arm and delivers the injection. The reaction is immediate. Her child convulses on the table. The mother startles back. The doctors stand and wait.
Her child’s body starts to loll, at first listlessly, then with more agitation. Her little face scrunches into disfigurement. One slim arm raises a few inches from the table— reaches.
The mother clutches her own hair. Styling pins bite into her palms and fall to the floor.
“Wow,” says the first doctor. “Did you miss the vein?”
“Of course not,” replies the second and makes another dose. This time it’s injected straight into her child’s leg. A gloved hand vigorously rubs at the injection site.
Her child’s back arches off the table. Her lips quiver and she stutters out an unmistakable, “Mommy.”
The mother quakes, mouth agape.
The mother clutches to her CL with both hands.
And it hurts.
Her child makes an effort to sit up. Her chest manages, but her head rolls back. Her wrist is up and fingers spasm. Then she gasps in a last heave of breath - a final word - before she collapses. Her chest visibly deflates.
The mother doesn’t have to be a doctor to know that she’s gone.
“She’s gone.” The first doctor says it anyway.
And the second tags on, “We’ve never seen anything like that.”
The doctors busy themselves with their devices. Their fingers tap-tapping at the screens.
The mother remains rooted in place. Her child’s eyes and lips are still slightly parted. The mother is half convinced that her child will speak again. The other half knows that she never will.
Her final word is, “Please.”
The mother undulates in the elevator that automatically takes her to level 0. She pitches out into the parking garage.
The woman wearing amber is there beside her pod car. She presents an item into the mother’s hands.
It’s a whole measure of mint-colored paint.
“1-hour delivery guaranteed!” The woman says with a smile. The expression stretches the sagging skin of her face as she backs towards the elevator’s open doors.
The mother sets the paint down into the passenger seat. She wavers her pod car out of the parking space and passes the elevator. Its doors are closed.
She enters the tunnel. All there is to see is the rounded sky at the end.
It’s another eye that won’t blink; another mouth that won’t speak.
The mother smashes down on the accelerator. She didn’t know that her pod car could roar. It screeches and bellows through the dark. It barrels right through that waiting blue.
And the sunlight burns.
The mother sucks in a great heap of air and chokes on it.
Children on their way back to the D.O. make that sound. They choke and cry while they wait for pickup. They’re all so different. No two children are exactly alike, but their last word is always the same. Her child was never supposed to have that as her last word.
Not her child.
The mother presses for another burst of speed and tears out into the streets.
And between one clawed breath and the next, everything comes back to her with a heavy downpour of data.
She shuts her eyes to stem off the worst of the flow. The new song blares on, and a familiar ping indicates that the mother has an incoming message. She blindly swipes to accept.
A prerecorded voice is there to greet her.
“DR | 1N9, it has come to our attention that you are in need of an upgrade.”
The mother opens her eyes.
I used to think that I was trapped with a monster inside my head. I would run from it. Hide from it. I was terrified of the day it would catch me. I grew up; grew tired. And one day I realized it wasn’t a monster at all. Though it roared, it also cried. There was never a monster inside my head.
There was only ever a child. I abandoned her to the dark and quiet. And for that I am ashamed.
I continue this life with her in mind. She doesn’t cry so much these days. And when she does, I sit down and cry with her. I invite her along on outings and we laugh the laugh of children.
There is a child in each and every one of us. They can be our dearest friend or we can be their cruelest abuser.
I choose now to be kind. And because children are intrinsically so, she has forgiven me.