They removed him, as he had requested, from his palace suite on the atrium roof to the top floor where there were no window sills for the birds to perch on and torment his sensitive ears. But night came and one of those flying rodents paused to rest on the ventilator outlets and sing of some pain he had long ago dismissed.
Air conditioning had accompanied him through each of these last seventy years in which he had not set foot into what his father had called ‘outdoors’. He was used to the reassuring hum that soothed his nightmares at all hours, wherever and whenever. Night and day had been one to him for so long he had forgotten the difference. And now this one creature was singing, amplified by the air vents in ghostly echo, a night bird, driving him demented, reminding him that the dark was closing in.
He was one hundred and thirty and had done well to get this far without access to the programmes he had introduced for the benefit of future generations in the first idealistic flush of his benign regime. Born of a mortal mother by the gross animal fertilization still practised in his youth, he had improved his mind and mortified his flesh till the thing he called his body was no more than a vehicle for thought.
Successive generations had bowed to his superior wisdom in the worship of science from the Great Homogenization onwards. It had not taken an act of genius to realize that homo sapiens was coming off the rails and had never been properly defined. Reducing the typeset, cleaning up the font, standardizing the format had all followed with unassailable logic through the therapy that finally rid the species of its predators, multiple deadly viruses first amongst them. The Control and Cure Methodology once established, a succession of life-enhancing triumphs followed. Overpopulation had been suppressed. Disease was now a thing of the past. Permitted births were guaranteed an outcome.
His glassy eye was drawn to the virtual cabinet that showed him every individual who entered or left his headquarters via the thought scanners that served as open doors on his tolerant, liberal home, stripping them as they came. Unwanted callers were unknown. Few dared to make his personal acquaintance. It hurt but was maybe for the best. And now a well-dressed female was striding through, hailed by friendly exclamations from the playmasters and whoops from the cheerleaders that expressed the correct degree of obeisance he demanded.
She disregarded them with what seemed like contempt and he was about to activate the complaint button when he realized it was his daughter. She was ninety-five and should have known better but if you radiate the eternal youth he had gifted her, you flaunt what you’re made of with every step.
Deciding what she was to be made of had required much thought and dedication. The traditional attributes of womanhood had been supplemented by as many doses of Second Sight as could be risked on a human frame at the time, and these assets were permanently renewable at quarter-century intervals or half-century should scientific progress continue at its current pace.
He watched as she entered the elevator with a glance at the floor number where he lay, requesting his permission to ascend. Had she come to bid him farewell or to speak of the breakthrough that would give him another century and extend his beneficent regime for her to inherit? They had talked of transferring his brain to an entirely artificial receptor that would preserve it forever but the procedure was doubtful and the outcome uncertain. Secretly he knew his brain was no longer worth the effort but this was not a truth he could share with anyone, not even his designated successor.
His only offspring and heir apparent, his daughter was the light of his life, born of his sperm and the unknown female he had personally chosen from a myriad applicants for her genetic strength and an intelligence quotient that outstripped his own, though this was not something the public had ever heard. The procedure rapidly caught on, his example was normative in this as in everything, planning was clearly the essence and it was unwise for prospective parents to meet in person though formal good wishes might be exchanged by remote, he consented as a gesture to atavistic frailty.
The nightingale sang on above his head. His daughter sighed impatiently in the elevator car and he stabbed the consent button being too proud to say ‘yes’ to the voice recognition detector, which answered anyway, as a matter of course, with an ‘at your command sir’. He watched her on the elevator camera as it made its way up. She had put on weight. He would have to scold her.
In limiting his progeny, he had exercised the restraint he imposed on others. Procreation was a privilege to be earned, the under qualified were automatically debarred by algorithmic scrutiny. Conversely life, once confirmed, was handled carefully, no risks were allowed, death was wasteful of investment and increasingly a thing of shame. The Reasoned Longevity Ration was his own invention and he was proud of it. Only the intelligent and compliant were to benefit. No one that he couldn’t be sure of made it into the higher echelons past their first century.
She stared up at the camera, knowing he’d be watching. Fifth floor, sixth floor… He knew that expression. It came from years, decades, of waiting for the top job. Well let her wait. The job was not as slinky as she might think.
She was vain. She was petulant. Selfish. It irked him to note that all his efforts had failed to have the desired – and otherwise ubiquitous – effect on his own offspring. Irrationality had been largely bred out of the species, it was not required in any well regulated universe such as this. Cheating, deceiving, laziness, stupidity had been washed away. All his subjects now could boast the same thoughts, utter the same words and control themselves lest they be controlled. Sometimes he had to admit he was uncertain whether fear played a part and self-censorship was at work but why should it? People could say what they liked. They just didn’t want to.
Tenth floor, eleventh, twelfth… Her radiant youth seemed clouded by some concern, he saw lines under her eyes and her cheeks were not as taut as when he last saw her. He would have words with her Social Surgeon.
Twenty-fifth… twenty-ninth… She smiled at the camera, knowing he would see her. A deep furrow opened up beside her pursed mouth. She looked… He was starting to get anxious. She looked older. Ninety-five was nothing nowadays but no one shouted it from the rooftops. Disclosing the age of a leader or commander was strictly forbidden and no one discussed it. The compliancy programme had ensured that decades ago. Illicit thoughts no longer arose.
Forty-second, sixty-second… and now she was talking to him. The elevator surveillance microphone picked up every word spoken, if the subject’s personal microphone had accidentally failed or somehow been switched off, something immediately alerted to the Politeness Police and severely punishable. He was irked to realize this applied to hers. She really must conform!
Sixty-seventh, seventy-sixth…. “Daddy I have to talk to you. I’ve been so bored…”
“Bored?” he echoed her spontaneously though his voice would not carry and wasn’t meant to.
“Yes bored,” she answered, knowing full well she was defying a central edict prohibiting the word let alone the condition. “I’ve gone off sex completely. The robots are so dull and the men can’t do it anymore, you’ve castrated them with all this compliance.”
Eighty-ninth, ninety-eighth… He was getting hot under his plasma collar but she ranted on: “Artificial sex has turned me off completely, I can’t imagine anything new and all that comes back is my own boredom. And then…” Her voice suddenly turned soft, pleading, and she wiped away a rhetorical tear, the only kind still allowed.
“Then what?” he snapped as the rounded glass door from the lift slid open at his thought command and she entered, patting her stomach. “I’m having a baby.”
She helped herself to some water, allowing herself a breather and himself the time to digest the news and the anger she knew was sweeping over him, anger long blended out into other states such as critique, deconstruction, positivity, in all his subjects at least. Only the masters were allowed emotions and this included her. But she had crossed a line and she knew it.
The nightingale sang on the air vent and she glanced up, envying it the freedom to sing.
He felt his remaining strength seep from him. She was contravening the very basis of his rule. Sex was for leisure purposes only and a civic duty. Unregulated pregnancy was forbidden. All births must be strictly planned and executed under medical control. Animal birth was a disgrace and he told her so. Parturition had been banned.
Had he been able, he would have reminded her also that the line of succession did not automatically pass through her good self let alone this morganatic bastard she was now announcing, but a wave of fury swept over her, drowning him out.
“I want a child!” she growled with a terrifying snarl and something in her physiognomy cracked, the way tall buildings cracked and crumbled in the seismic tremors he had not yet managed to prevent. A fissure opened from her cranium through her top right eyebrow to her bottom left jaw and the perfectly preserved surface crazed like precious porcelain in an overheated oven, shattered into a myriad fragments that clung to her face for a fraction of a second before exploding around her. She screamed and grasped her head but clumps of blonde hair came away in her suddenly gnarled knuckles revealing the bloodied skull beneath. A pitiful lament burst from her lungs as contractions set in and her hands gripped her shrivelled stomach.
“See?” he said, and would have said more, but his words were stifled firstly by the rising fury in his throat and secondly by the pillow she descended on his face with a final burst of rage.
Occasionally she removed it, not from remorse but to check its efficacity, and he heard a snatch of that nightingale as he gasped for breath, before she replaced it and pushed harder.
Its song reminded him of a bird he had loved on the farm where he grew up.
© Gareth Jones 8/11/20