Sat at his console, Reuven could hear someone talking, a few stations up.
‘It’s just brilliant,’ the voice enthused. ‘The best thing ever. It truly is perfect.’ There was an edge to his voice, a boast.
Reuven glanced up the line at the owner of the voice and idly wondered what the “perfect” thing might be, but an in-coming, high-alert instruction took his attention back to his job and he quickly started working on a protocol.
On the sky train home, he donned his leisure glasses and selected the adverts stream appropriate to his income. The choices were dispiritingly mundane.
“Want to go back in time?” blared the first one. “Experience a pandemic. Queue up for toilet rolls, avoid other people, look at an empty sky.”
‘Why would anyone want to do that?’ he wondered. ‘And what were toilet rolls?’
The next assaulted his nostrils with the slightly, acid scent, of manufactured flowers. He could just about afford two blooms, but at least they would last a life-time, he supposed.
He selected the next income level stream. No better. It wasn’t until he had reached five streams above his income level, that the adverts became interesting.
Interesting, but way out of his reach.
Sighing to himself, he closed the adverts stream down and selected a random memory. And immediately wished he hadn’t.
His father was speaking.
‘You failed,’ he said tonelessly. He didn’t need to raise his voice to emphasis the point. He had a number of masks he could call on to help with his communication skills and he had chosen the “extremely disappointed” one. This was the one that kept his eyes focussed on the subject, his lips curled down and his nostrils flared. The mask had a small mal-function in it, which caused it to freeze for almost thirty seconds more than optimum response time. His father was trying to soft-boot it off, but it wasn’t working, so he was left looking like some sort of ferrety creature trying to out-stare his prey.
‘That’s what comes of buying seconds,’ Reuven thought, with some satisfaction.
However there was no satisfaction in knowing he had not made the required grade to get onto the World Education Program. So, instead of earning the highest world salary, he was stuck on level twenty-four, with level twenty-four advertising and a repetitive, level twenty-four life. There was absolutely nothing “perfect” about it.
The next day, queueing to pick up his personalised, vitamin lozenge, Reuven realised he was standing behind “Mr. Perfect”.
‘What a night! I was afraid I might have picked up a rogue implant and been infected with a false memory, but no, it was still there and it was real all right.’
Despite himself, Reuven craned his neck to listen.
‘And was it just as good as you’d remembered?’
‘Mate, it was so much better.’ His voice was strident. ‘You should get one.’
Having finished the lozenge, Reuven lay down on his assigned rotation bed and closed his eyes. Fifteen minutes later, his body having sloughed off a weeks-worth of aging, he sat up, walked over to the communal bench and inserted a re-hydration drip.
‘So what is it you’ve got that’s so perfect?’ he asked the man sitting next to him, his tone slightly contemptuous.
Galton, as his name turned out to be, needed no prompting.
Reuven vaguely recalled his father telling him about them. Apparently, long before the advent of World Consolidation Day, you could get them completely free. Of course you had to know where to go to get one and sometimes you had to take one from someone else. But generally, everyone had one. Then they started to mal-function. They became dysfunctional and eventually they ceased to exist, a bit like libraries.
But now, the World Central Government, realising how good they were, had brought back new, up-dated versions. But they were only available to purchase by those on level forty and above. Those who had been on the World Education Program. His failure pierced him all over again.
‘So how could you afford to buy one?’ Reuven asked, his resentment barely contained. Everyone knew everyone else’s grade, so it wasn’t an impolite question. It would have been different if he’d asked Galton where he had been born – that would have risked a brain scan check-up.
He had to buy an hour’s blind spot, his last one from his years allotment. He wasn’t sure if scrolling the Artizana web was an offence, but he wasn’t going to take any chances. Fifty minutes later he found the site Galton had told him about. He’d had to change his identity four times, each one costing him money he could ill afford. He had almost given up, when a dialogue box popped up:
‘Perfect Purchases – how can we help?’
He requested some sample plans and a bewildering array of options and price points poured into his lock-safe device. Switching on the de-coder, he quickly scanned the selection. There were five price points, or you could buy Seconds at discounted prices – ones that weren’t quite so perfect.
A vision of his father’s “Extremely Disappointed” mask flashed into his mind. He wouldn’t be choosing a Second.
A shimmering eye on the wall, indicated that the blind spot was about to run out, so Reuven quickly made his selection - price point three (the most popular according to the site), plus an accessory – and authorised the payment. A message immediately popped into his personal brain scanner.
‘Thank you for your order. We’ll let you know once your item(s) have been dispatched. Your estimated delivery date is indicated below.’
Three days later, another message:
‘Your order is on the way and can no longer be changed.’
It was getting closer.
‘Your bot will deliver your order today between 8.00 and 9.00. The World Central Government have authorised you to receive it at home.’
Reuven paced the floor. His lips kept acting totally out of character by turning upwards, followed by his eye-brows and then his shoulders. Odd noises popped out of his mouth un-bidden and his in-built heart monitor kept cutting in, to slow the excited organ down. At 8.00, the door monitor advised him that a delivery was outside. He opened the door.
‘Hello,’ said a soft voice.
The pretty woman had a baby in her arms and was holding the hand of a small child wearing a pink dress. A black dog lay at the child’s feet.
‘It’s lovely to meet you. We’re your perfect family.’
© Sue Buckingham
Winning Story: Contest #18
The following stories are the Outright Winning Entries for the Monthly Short Story Contest
March 2020 onwards