“Seven thirty a.m. Coffee is ready.”
Alisha groaned, stretched, relaxed, and fell asleep again.
“Eight o’clock. Coffee is now tepid. You have three scheduled diary commitments today.”
She cracked open an eyelid. “Shut up, Tech. I’m tired. It’s my day off.”
“Message from your mother, she wishes to know your time of arrival.”
That got her attention. Rolling over, she sat up. “Elizabeth is not my mother! Please reheat the coffee.”
“I will remake the coffee; reheating is not advisable.”
“Whatever… Why do you have to be so darned pedantic?”
“I cannot be pedantic. I am pure logic. Your mother…Elizabeth is…”
Alisha scraped back her long amber hair. “I know, okay! Just shut up and let me have my coffee in peace!”
“Copy that and will await voice activation.”
“Is that voice activation?”
“I cannot actually…”
Alisha grinned. If a machine could sound peeved, Tech did. Tech had assimilated so many human traits which humans had not considered a computer capable of replicating.
Were they copied, or actually felt?
She decided this was too much deep thinking for first thing in the morning. She swung her legs out of bed and crossed the pod to the work surface. The hatch slid open, revealing a freshly-brewed pot of coffee. Pouring herself a cup, she took it over to the window. The screen automatically slid open at seven thirty every day. She looked out at blue sky, although today she saw a thick haze was forming near ground level, obscuring the forest that lay far below the Hive. Very occasionally, the few birds still surviving made it up this high and Alisha spotted one now. It soared in lazy circles, a buzzard perhaps, gliding on a thermal.
Turning away, she crossed back to her bed, unwilling as yet to give the order for it to be stored. She wanted to enjoy the luxury of lounging there to drink her coffee since it was her one and only free day. Sitting back against the pillows, Alisha pondered her antagonism toward her android ‘mother,’ Elizabeth.
As far back as the late noughties people had been keeping daily recorded journals of themselves. Their life memories, both visual and voice recorded, were stored in Tech ready to be modified into a replica droid after their death. The problem with this system was that now the droid city seriously outnumbered the human one by four to one and this worried her. The advance of graphene both before and after the final Russian–Chinese war in 2105 was responsible for many great and wondrous advances in technology. The fact that any of humankind had survived at all was a direct result of that miraculous discovery.
Alisha had accepted the society she lived in—without questioning the ethics—until her mother, Elizabeth, had died two years previously and her replica droid ‘mother’ had been created. The newly crafted Elizabeth droid now lived in the Android city. Alisha had visited her, as she was expected to do, but instead of the solace her friends found in their resurrected mothers, she’d found the whole experience weirdly disturbing. She began to question in her own mind the need to create so many droids. To her, it seemed egotistical, and simply unnecessary to recreate most of the women in society who’d died.
The droid Elizabeth was not her mother. Alisha discovered that others did not share her consternation and she quickly learned to drop the subject. People that bucked the trend in today’s society had an unnerving habit of being demoted— ‘Do your job, keep happy, and don’t cause acid rain to fall’ was society’s motto.
She grabbed a breakfast nutri bar and ate it while she finished her coffee. “Diary update,” she ordered the reactivated Tech.
“You have until tomorrow to decide on your right to pregnancy…”
“Hold!” Alisha needed to ponder her decision on that subject in peace, before Tech moved onto spouting the next item on her to do list. She could choose to carry a baby to term herself through the artificial insemination program. There was also egg donation, one where she could donate to another woman who would carry the child to gestation, or she could opt for the ‘fake’ technical womb option. This was the most popular way of procreation these days.
But Alisha knew she also had the right to remain childless, but in doing so she would forfeit the right to having a droid replica made of her at the end of her life. There were very few exceptions to that rule. A woman of outstanding intelligence who had given or done something unique for society could have an after-death android, regardless of whether or not she had procreated, but these exceptions were rare.
There were no men active within the Hive. The few there were bred purely for breeding purposes, and only the exceptionally healthy fetuses cultivated; the rest of the male pregnancies were aborted. The sperm of the few males born and allowed to grow into adults, was used for procreation. As Alisha understood it, between the ages of twenty to twenty-five, a breeding male was ‘put to sleep.’ Since her mother’s death she had begun to question the ethics of this barbaric practice used within their female-dominated society.
Alisha’s work was centered wholly within the entertainment archives. She loved being in a movie and often donned a virtual reality mask to enjoy a film. The exciting thing for her was choosing which character she wanted to play. Alisha had been every single character in most of them. Uncovering ancient films which had been recreational fantasy for society long past, had been the most exciting find to date. She was captivated by these visual images, some on celluloid, and then later digital film. All were tales relating to how men and women lived together and had relationships; many had something called a marriage. The ones she enjoyed watching over and again were of men and women falling in love.
The steamier tales awoke her latent sensuality. Her nights became filled with turgid dreams of hunky men kissing and making love to her, a term they seemed to use a lot in that bygone era.
Earlier screenings were even more intriguing, depicting men taking a woman over their knee and spanking her bottom until she agreed to behave. Her nights became lustier as she relived the images of those men spanking women. She imagined herself held down over a strong, handsome man’s lap while he raised his palm, and brought it down with a resounding slap on her naked buttocks.
Before her exciting discovery, Alisha had not had any great desire for sex, whereas now her hand slipped frequently between her legs, her fingers busy in her damp folds. However, the regular masturbation didn’t satisfy her deep-seated, forbidden cravings for a real man. She knew she should report her archive finds to the Senate, but she feared they would be considered dissentient and subsequently destroyed. Alisha couldn’t allow that to happen.
In order to help her alleviate her frustrations, Alisha finally decided to try out a sex droid. What a disappointment that had turned out to be! In the outmoded films she’d become addicted to, the man took charge and bent the female to their will; these were the situations which excited her. First off, the sex droid which arrived at her door looked nothing like the male heroes she’d become fixated upon. No doubt ‘his’ design was based upon the very young males the Hive used for breeding. The droid had delicate features, and no beard or stubble. The voice was set too high to be truly masculine, but the real turn off for her had been the constant need to instruct the thing: “Touch my breasts, please tweak my nipples, and now touch me between my legs…” In the end, she had given up seeking pleasure, dismissing the damned thing along with the whole idea.
She knew her desire for a man was outmoded. Like other women of the Hive, she had no wish to risk a return to the dark past of male egos and strategies of war which had led to so much destruction, along with world famine.
At the end of the final war, humans and many other animal species had almost been eradicated worldwide by turbulent air currents carrying high levels of radiation across the globe. The remaining human population, the majority of whom were female, decided they’d had enough of male warmongering. It had been the female leaders of the world who had dealt fairly with the seemingly never-ending pandemics that had emerged during the 21st century. This was followed by worldwide food shortages. Then came the war to end all wars as the two superpowers, Russia and China, fought over dwindling resources in 2105.
A female-led society sprung up on the only land mass with sufficient height above sea level capable of sustaining life. This happened to be in the remaining American continent, in an area once known as Colorado. Perhaps there were pockets of humans remaining on high ground elsewhere in the world, but to date none had been reported to have responded to the various signals Tech beamed over the Earth’s surface at regular intervals from the Hive.
Alisha had studied history, bringing her to the archives. Everyone knew that people had remained on the ground. The remaining population was forced to take their chances in the ruined, polluted world below the Hive. How many had survived or remained down there was anyone’s guess.
The ruling Senate recommended the women remain high above the clouds where the air was pure and unpolluted. The vegetation and animal diversity were left alone to heal as best they could down below the clouds of falling acid rain. Occasionally she had seen an archive documentary which channeled images into virtual reality in order that the public could see how certain areas of the earth’s floor were beginning to regenerate and flourish once again. However, apart from using drone cameras, as far as she knew no one had yet actually dared to venture down onto the earth’s surface.
With her knowledge of history, Alisha understood why the founders of the Hive sky city had moved to this model of living. She personally disliked the lack of original thought that existed nowadays. The ability for individuals to make suggestions and offer alternatives for society to live differently had been suppressed. Free thinking was abhorred.
“Shower on,” she ordered Tech, as she rose from the bed. “Store bed,” she added and watched as the bed slid into its cubby hole. The panel closed over it. Stripping off her simple nightshirt, she stepped into the shower enjoying its warmth and comfort. While washing her hair, she pondered her dilemma. She wanted a child, but she didn’t want a robot version of herself when she’d passed on. This was why she was so behind in logging her thoughts into her daily diary. Also, she wasn’t keen to bring another girl into this female society. Yes, she understood the ethics and reasoning behind the decision to breed men for use as procreation only. Life seemed a hollow existence and she had a growing dissatisfaction for the society in which she lived, but didn’t fully understand why this should be.
Many of her friends were in fulfilling relationships with other women. Elizabeth, her mother, hadn’t chosen that route, and Alisha ultimately decided against it as well. She’d attempted a relationship with another woman, Sheena, but it hadn’t been fulfilling for her, and in the end, they’d decided to part amicably.
Alisha longed for the kind of relationship she’d found once existed between men and women living in those pre-war days, which she’d discovered quite by chance while cataloguing the entertainment archives.
After rinsing her hair, she turned the water off and waited for the air cycle to dry her. Perhaps she should discuss her dilemma over having a child with her droid ‘mother’? After all, Elizabeth’s thoughts were now inside the Elizabeth android; this was a resource Alisha could always tap into, so it made sense she should utilize that now.
“Tech, tell Elizabeth I will be able to visit today. I should be there around eleven.”
“Done. Do not forget today is your last chance to decide about your pregnancy.”
“I won’t, thank you.”
“You are welcome.”
Alisha remained polite with her Tech, for everyone knew that Tech shared knowledge with every android. How could they not when they were effectively one enormous computer brain? She’d noted how many women were rude when speaking to their Tech and later heard that they’d ended up stranded in elevators, or their home gadgets broke down. Those who remained calm and polite with their Tech seemed to live lives without incident. It was an interesting fact which she’d stored away.
Another thing she knew for certain was that due to recent genome breakthroughs, women would soon be cloned as opposed to physically producing babies. Her mother had worked in the field of genome research and before she’d died, she’d shared that secret information with Alisha. She could discuss her torn feelings on this subject with the super intelligent droid purporting to be her mother.
“Weather alert, red warning of storms. P.M. today.”
“Thank you, Tech, but I’ll be back before lunch.”
She was ready to leave, dressed in her silvered, hermetic, form-fitting body suit of breathable fabric which kept her temperature at a comfortable level, and was impenetrable to water. She stepped through the hatch into her personal transport, colloquially known as a ‘bubble’ due to its clear, domed roof. She ordered the vehicle forward, but since Tech ran everything, and knew her destination, there was nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the ride.
Gazing down at the top of the verdant scenery below, visible now that the sun had burned away the earlier mist, she wondered how life was regenerating down on the earth’s surface.
The drive was very smooth, the only sound coming from bends in the monorail which caused a sudden rush of noise. It was impossible for her to recognize anyone traveling in the opposite direction due to the speed. Traffic weaved along rails in different directions above and below her, conveying people about their daily lives.
The “City of the Dead” loomed closer.
“Welcome, child. You look well.” Elizabeth the droid didn’t try to hug her, for which Alisha was grateful. Although she looked like her mother, the droid’s stillness and its way of holding herself was very unlike the real Elizabeth’s constant movement of hands. She remembered that her mother constantly dragged a hand through her hair, leaving it messy. The droid’s representation of Elizabeth’s face was, however, unsettlingly true-to-life.
“It is all right to see me as a droid and not as your mother, Alisha. To my mind it shows your level of high intelligence. Please come, sit with me.” Elizabeth led the way into her pod. Unlike human pods there was very little furniture; two chairs stood at either side of a low table; the area otherwise empty. Alisha pondered on how a droid spent its day.
They sat in silence for a few minutes before Elizabeth spoke. “I am sorry your mother died so young. A hundred, wasn’t she?”
“You know full well how old she was!” Alisha couldn’t help but snap. “She should have made it to at least a hundred and fifty.”
The droid nodded, her face sympathetic, an exact replica of her mother’s expression, with tilted lips and creased forehead. “I agree, your mother died too young. You have something you wished to discuss with me, perhaps?” she asked gently.
“Yes. The deadline for my decision on becoming a mother is today.”
“I see, and what are your thoughts on the subject?”
Alisha stared into the eyes of the droid and further words stuck in her throat. This had been a mistake. Her mother was dead.
“I know you have an issue with me, Alisha, but I hold all your mother’s memories. I cannot love you as she did, but I am programmed to care for you and want the best for you. You do matter to me. Please trust me and share your thoughts. I will never betray your confidence to another.”
“How can you say that when you are connected by Tech to, well, all of Tech society?”
The discovery of graphene and then graphinite led to the entire structure facilitating Tech which conducted within the walls, floors, and rails, in fact anything made of graphinite. Tech monitored and supplied the population with home comforts and provided all technical knowledge within work environments. The pods in which people lived were designed to be wholly intelligent spaces which connected seamlessly throughout the city, thus creating a continuous flow of knowledge and shared living. It was a place where true privacy had become a thing of the past.
The droid tipped its head in acknowledgement of her statement, but remained silent, as if thinking. “I have the ability, like all androids, to turn off the sharing section in my computer brain. I have done that now. Please share your thoughts with me in the confidence that only I am listening. I am guessing that your question has something to do with your mother’s work before her death?”
Alisha relaxed a little. “Yes. What do you know of that?”
“I know your society is moving towards cloning as opposed to birth procreation.” The android confirmed Alisha’s suspicion that her mother had stored that information for her droid.
“I see. Did she program you, or have you gleaned that from Tech speak?” Alisha asked. She wanted to know if she was correct.
“I have information from both sources.”
“I worry that cloning will result in a rise of human diseases and defects,” Alisha said.
“I agree. With normal breeding, certain weakness can be eradicated. However, with cloning you are simply repeating the same DNA and any defects remain.”
“That was my mother’s concern too.” She smiled and looked at the Elizabeth droid with more respect. She hadn’t expected a part of Tech to agree with her.
“You are surprised that I agree with your mother?” the droid asked.
“Yes. You are, after all, a part of Tech, and Tech enabled the move towards cloning.”
“True, but humans program Tech to do that. That does not mean logic agrees with your society’s choice on the matter. Tell me, Alisha, are you here to ask my advice about your options for a pregnancy?”
“I suppose I am… I wondered what you think my mother would advise me to do?” Alisha asked.
“I think she would say that you gave her immense joy and she would want you to experience the wonderful mother and daughter bond that she enjoyed with you.”
The droid stared back at her in silence, as if it was holding back. Or perhaps it wished to say more?
“Putting my mother’s thoughts aside, what do you personally think I should do?”
Elizabeth stood and walked to the window with her back to Alisha. She found the droid’s stillness unnerving. It suddenly turned and moved swiftly towards her; she jumped, startled.
“I am supposed to keep my relationship with you as I was programmed by Elizabeth. Asking me a question as a droid, you put me in an entirely different—and rather awkward—position.”
The droid held up her hand. “But I am inclined to ignore protocol, and answer you as a droid. My opinion is this… I think there are pitfalls to cloning which humans have not thought through fully. Since they appear to want to only use one DNA sample from what they consider is the perfect woman and replicate it many times, I foresee a society that will stagnate under the burden of that single person’s thought process. All faults from that original person they use for cloning will be magnified when the cloned population grows exponentially over time. I foresee disaster for your society.”
Alisha nodded. “Yes, I see that too, but surely it is a better way forward than the way babies are farmed now, with most male fetuses destroyed?”
“Let us return to your immediate problem, for that is a wider issue. Your dilemma is here and now; it comes down to what you want.”
“I see, but the wider issue will impact my child, should I go ahead and bring one into the world,” she replied.
“Alisha, you cannot plan another’s life for them; you can only plan your own. You must ask yourself what would please you.”
She studied Elizabeth. “You know, you do sound very much like my mother.”
The droid smiled. “I am programmed with her thoughts, so that would be inevitable.”
“Thank you for seeing me today.”
“You are welcome.”
Alisha rose to her feet. “It’s time I left, but I’ll give some thought to what you said. Perhaps I might visit you again, perhaps next month?”
The droid nodded. “I would appreciate another visit, Alisha. You are a most interesting young woman.”
The droid walked Alisha back to the bubble dock and stood watching as she clambered inside. The awkwardness of having to hug the droid was thankfully avoided. Since it resembled her mother, her misgivings were amplified by the knowledge that this was just a machine and that repressed any sentimentality she may have felt. Alisha gave the android a small wave which was returned.
The bubble got underway at her command to return home; she was relieved to leave the awkwardness of the meeting behind. It was then that she noticed the skies had turned ominously dark, clouds building, rain beginning to lash the roof of the machine. Lightning struck the monorail some yards in front of her, causing a cascade of sparks. Her scalp tingled and the hairs on her arms lifted at the static in the air. Nervous, but not alarmed, she reminded herself that the structures were designed to cope with lightning strikes. If anything, it was the transport itself that was vulnerable, but because it moved so fast, the danger was considered minimal.
Arriving back, the bubble docked without mishap. As she entered her pod, the first thing Tech said was, “Head of Procreation requires a final answer by eighteen hundred hours.”
“Thanks. Tea, please.” Alisha had no intention of alerting Tech to her thoughts; the matter was her decision. Before she could brood any further, a beep alerted her to the fact her tea was ready. Fetching the mug, she sat down, sighing as she sank into her ergonomic chair. Sipping her tea, Alisha intermittently chewed her nails, a habit she’d been unable to break since childhood. After a few moments of contemplation, she came to a decision.
“Head of Procreation, please, Tech.”
The hologram of the well-groomed Helen Markham flashed into being. With her dark hair drawn tightly back from her face and neatly stowed into a severe bun on top of her head, Helen wore a hermetic suit in black. Her thin lips were coated with a slash of scarlet lipstick. “Alisha, I gather you must have reached your decision?” The question was asked in her usual clipped tone.
“Yes, I have decided against a pregnancy.”
Helen frowned. “I don’t understand which choice have you selected, my dear?”
“I choose none. I will not reproduce.” Helen leant forward. She placed both elbows on the desk and clasped her hands together, her knuckles white. “Can I offer you counseling before you make this extremely negative decision?”
Alisha shook her head. “No, thank you.”
“I urge you to reconsider, Alisha. Our society needs women like you to reproduce, or eventually our society could run into…difficulties. Remember our history, where the most intelligent women were extracted from every field of expertise. They were safeguarded and protected until our female-led city emerged—affectionately named the Hive by our early sisters. Ours is a unique community built high above the polluted air and ravaged Earth. These early pioneers constructed the Hive using a material derived from the discovery of graphene and made into an ultra-strong product named graphinite. This substance of immense strength was lightweight, which when built into the giant honeycomb hive, could withstand anything our planet’s unpredictable weather threw at it.”
Alisha shifted, irritated. Why was Helen lecturing her on a history she already knew? “Yes, I do know all this.”
“It was a fabulous innovation, connecting the units which were joined by a series of monorails that ran between living, accommodation, recreational, and working areas of the Hive. Geniuses that they were, built into the entire structure, was Tech. This amazing electronic super brain services everything and runs everything, Alisha. Do you appreciate how amazing this is?”
“Yes, I fully appreciate how incredible our city is, Helen, but my mind is made up. I assume I still have the right to decide for myself whether or not I bring a child into the world?”
“Without each of us doing our part for the community we will not grow. It is every sister citizen’s duty to keep the population going.”
“I have considered all of this. I know how our society works, but not every woman needs to procreate. I assume I still have free will?”
The woman’s expression sank into a grimace.
“Of course you do, my dear. I fully understand that your mother’s death hit you hard and that you have rarely visited her droid. I beg you to reconsider accepting some help before taking such a momentous decision.”
Helen spoke over her reply. “I am giving you two more weeks to think this over, and in that time, I want you to visit with Elizabeth and discuss your concerns with her.” Helen’s thin lips lifted into a saccharine smile.
Helen held her palm up. “No need for thanks, my dear. Make the right choice, Alisha. Good day.” Her image vanished.
“Fuck!” She slumped back into her seat.
Damn the woman!
Who did she think she was? Helen sat on the lower council. It was clear the woman had power issues, and nothing Helen could say was going to change her mind. What she needed now was a drink. “Going out,” she told Tech.
“Out for a goddamned drink!”
“I require your destination and estimated time of return.”
“Your guess is as good as mine! Open hatch.”
“I do not make guesses. I need to know where you intend—”
“Tech, activate the door! We both know that as soon as I flash my palm anywhere in this city, you’ll know my whereabouts, so stop being an ass and open the goddamned thing!”
“If that is your requirement.” The device slid apart, opening onto the transport bay.
Alisha strode out, deliberately neglecting to thank Tech and climbed into her bubble. “Destination: Strike a Light.” Her transport glided forward onto the monorail heading in the direction of the well-known tavern.
The storm was still lashing the Hive, as lightning flashed across the sky. The electrical storms had become more prevalent of late. Scientists had contradicting theories as to why this was. Luckily, the tavern was only a short distance from her pod, and within minutes she was safe inside. There were several people she knew from her department in Archives already sitting at a table, and Alisha crossed the crowded room to join them. The table screen lit up as she sat with the menu, tapped in her drink order for a cherry vodka flip and selected a savory nutri bar. She then placed her palm on the pad which not only paid for her order, but also logged her presence. Tech would take note of the fact that she was there.
“Hey Alisha, seen anything of Sheena recently?” her friend Cally asked.
She shook her head. “No, that ended a few weeks back.”
“Oh? I’m sorry. So, you are footloose and fancy free again! Got anyone in mind you’d like to date?”
“Um, no, not at the moment—”
“Hey gals, Alisha is looking for a date, any suggestions?”
“How about long tall Sally from accounts?” Lotty cried.
“Oh my God, did you see her with Beth Bradstock? So funny. She’s short and Sally’s so tall!”
Laughter bubbled around her and Alisha shrank into herself.
Her friends began to play a drinking game, one where each player added a gesture, such as touching your nose, into each round. Every time someone missed one of the actions, they had to down their drink.
Coming here tonight had been a mistake; she was too preoccupied with her own problems to join in their lighthearted banter.
Tuning out the others’ conversation, she pondered her disagreement with Tech. Arguing with her Tech wasn’t something she usually engaged in.
“How does a machine manage to sound smug?” she wondered aloud.
“Huh?” Cally cocked a curious eyebrow at her sudden outburst.
“Sorry, I was just thinking about something.”
This was such a bad idea. Perhaps I should have stayed in after all. But then Tech would have been so unbearably smug.
She stayed to share one more round with her colleagues, but then decided she’d had enough. “Look, I have to go; I have an early start tomorrow.” She rose to her feet. A chorus of goodbyes and see you tomorrows echoed behind her as she left the bar. She wasn’t in the right frame of mind to join in with the fun.
In the landing bay, she glanced up at the sky, startled by a particularly bright flash of lightning. The lid to her bubble automatically lifted and she clambered inside unsteadily.
I’ve had more to drink than I realized.
She was only vaguely aware of the vehicle as it ran smoothly along the open rail towards her living pod. Alisha was totally unprepared for the deafening thunderclap and jagged flash of lightning which lit up the area around her. This time every hair on her body stiffened with static and pain lanced her head. A jolt occurred beneath her and she screamed. Then the bubble jumped from the rail, Alisha shrieking as she hurtled towards the ground in a sickening free fall.