by Robert N. Stephenson
|part 1 of 3|
I know I have broken the law, even know what the punishment might be, but I had to do it. I just hope they can forgive me and allow what has been done to continue.
I hope it is he who comes for us tonight: the Taker, he and the others have turned the days to ghosts and made night our true love.
To escape this life is impossible, to escape what I have done undeniable, but to suffer the consequences I must. I need them, we all need them. We have become reliant on their visits, their feeding, their injection of the Data-flow that has replaced our blood, saturated our minds. We have all fallen to their manipulation of our node filaments — the implants of our human selves.
My ironing is almost complete; two shirts, two pairs of trousers. At around nine each night I hang them outside the house as my offering and in the hope that I am deemed worthy of a visit by him, my favourite; the gentle one. It has become a ritual many have adopted, and our lives seem to now be identified by colours. The one thing lacking in the night.
“I will hang them,” my husband says, taking the clothes and opening the front door. He is a good man, patient, kind and, like me, barely alive by human standards; just like the rest of the town. John is rare, he is one of the few people in town who can stand the sunlight for short periods. We still need people like him to carry out the daily town duties, to keep attention away from us.
“Hang the yellow shirts in front,” I say.
John nods in agreement. Delaware has assigned us that colour. He says it is his preferred.
We moved to this town five years ago to escape the silver glitter of the spires; the pace of Net-Work Cities and node-linked lives. Back then the town was known as Five Oaks. Now it has no name. Though deep in the country, it did have a net centre and a node filament repair unit; not high-tech city stuff, but enough to keep the modern hospital functional for us new humans.
No-name town had a population of two thousand and a cemetery you didn’t need a car to look around. Well, the cemetery is still small; no one’s died since they came; no one’s been born either.
I’ve been making and ironing shirts for Delaware these past two years; John usually washes out the black Data-flow and dries the clothing in the dryer.
“Your programs will be starting soon,” John says coming back inside and closing the door. “I haven’t been relieved for three days and I need a Taker.” John looks paler than usual, though who can really tell, when our skin looks like white gossamer over thinning muscles.
“I’m right for a while,” I reassure him. “If he comes tonight I will insist that you be the one; besides, your nutrient load should be very high after three days.”
I sigh with weariness and sit before the open fireplace. It hasn’t seen flames since the day I was first initiated into the collection — the heat affects the Data-flow and threatens the stability of our node filaments. I rub the small of my back, feeling the spherical hub of the information cord that runs the length of my spine. It used to allow me to uplink services to the networks, but now... the scar on my neck throbs a little... now it’s all manual watching and direct brain processing; tough on the eyes.
A knock at the door startles John, but I am happy it has come. Only Delaware knocks. I like him, he is polite and informative. Not all of the Takers have explained themselves as he has, and few show his kindness.
“Good morning, John, Helen,” Delaware says entering our home. He is spattered with black spray; he has already fed. Delaware has told me that his race needs the data we absorb because they have for some reason lost the ability to directly gain information themselves. I don’t understand why this is so, and after all this time I find that I don’t really care.
“John needs relief,” I say, not bothering to stand. “He has been on a tough schedule for the last few days.”
“It has been three days of news programs,” John says in explanation. “It hurts to watch more...”
“Come then,” Delaware says without protest. He steers John towards the kitchen; the linoleum floor is much easier to clean than carpet and I dislike the sucking sound when a Taker feeds.
Turning on the television I prepare to watch the series of cop shows I have been requested to process. For me it is slow and tedious work, as I dislike these programs. I would prefer to watch this evening’s coming documentary on planetary climate change. I feel Delaware might be able to offer insights into this, but I must submit an application in order to change my schedule. I have done this many times without success. The Takers choose what we watch.
I hear John gasp as Delaware bites into his neck. First bite always draws away the nutrients within the Data-flow, the blood-like liquid that absorbs what we experience, what we live. A second, deeper bite will penetrate the node filament to download the last few days’ TV processing.
I rub at the raised lumps from the previous night’s access. It still pulses with the new infusion of black Data-flow; the slow-flow stuff that makes us sluggish and tired.
“I have left my clothes on the table,” Delaware says entering the room. He is naked and in his man-guise looks appealing. I am sure he knows what to do with the body should I find a weakness and desire him. But I won’t, not because of any physical dislike, but because I love John. Delaware understands and appreciates this complexity within us. I hope he can understand the complexity and need of my secret.
He slips into the fresh clothes, choosing the blue trousers and yellow shirt. The other set he neatly folds and tucks under his arm.
“John will be weak for a while. I have taken more from him than usual, as he had reached maximum capacity. He needs the rest, so do not let him watch television for the next twenty-four hours. When able to process the screen, he is to watch commercials only for the following eighteen hours.”
Delaware’s eyes sparkle amber, the sign of good feeding. His skin holds a vibrancy I assume we all once had, and his dark hair possesses the sheen of youthfulness. He can easily pass for twenty-five but I know from past conversations that he is well into his fifth century. I wonder what other races he has fed on, on other worlds. The Takers do not speak of this, it is taboo, but we know we are not the first and won’t be the last.
“I have wondered when I might be permitted a child,” I say, staring at him as he fastens the last button on his casual shirt. “I am thirty-two and my biological clock is fast running down.”
“You know the laws, why ask this now?” He isn’t angry but does frown.
“It is my time, the town needs children again.” I stand and feel the throb in my neck; it isn’t painful, just insistent.
“I will discuss it with the others,” he says, turning for the door.
“The answer will be no,” I say, knowing the truth of it.
He turns to me, face hard, eyes cold.
“I am already pregnant,” I say. “I had to take the chance.”
Delaware’s face reddens and his lips press together in the very human manner of anger; I have never seen anger in any of the Takers before.
“Why have you done this?” His voice is even, quiet but firm.
“I’m not getting any younger, Delaware...”
“You have said this already, but you know the complications, the problems that will occur in your body. Have I not counselled you in this, have not the town leaders?” He looked towards the kitchen. “Your husband told you of the dangers.”
“If I stop the Data-flow...”
“You will die!” He approaches, places his cold hands on my shoulders and eases me into my chair. He sits opposite on the low coffee table. He smells of the pungent metallic flow, his pointed teeth are spotted black from his feed. “We have never allowed this before, Helen, and to those of you who have tried we simply altered the Data-flow to purge the growth from within.”
“You would abort the child?” I felt ill.
“Yes.” Delaware looks to his hands, long white nails, thick dark veins. “I wish there was another way, Helen.” His voice holds a semblance of difficulty, the stain of emotion. “This cannot be allowed to happen.”
“Let me keep the child. I will stay within the process of the Data-flow...”
“You will die!”
“Do you know this?” I am desperate. I grab his hands, absorb his coldness. “You have said you have never allowed it; do you know for certain that I will die?”
He looks into my eyes, I see my face. I shiver. “No.”
“Then let me keep this child, Delaware!” I squeeze his hands, they resist; his skin is rough, hard like plastic. “If I stop the feeds, I will die; this you know. But if I continue, what could go wrong?” I find myself pleading and hate the sound of my voice. I have always been the strong one in my marriage.
“The baby may die within you,” he says softly.
“It may not.”
“Then let me taste the Data-flow, now; let us discover the unknown this moment.”
I swallow and feel my mouth is dry. I release him and sit back in the chair, not even the soft cushioning can ease the tension in my back, my neck. He stares at me with his unblinking eyes; two clear stones awash with mystery. I struggle to steady my breathing, calm my heart as he moves to his knees and hovers before me ready to bite. I hadn’t expected things to happen quite so fast.
“Let me taste what might be coming,” he says, grabbing the thick arms of the chair. “Trust me now in this, Helen. I may be your only hope.”
I look to the kitchen. Where is John? I should consult him.
“We must know,” Delaware sighs. He traces the scar on my neck.
“Now?” I ask.
“Yes.” In a blur I feel him bite hard, straight into the filament, straight into darkness.
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by Robert N. Stephenson