Octavia walked through the downstairs foyer of her office block, the greasy smell of frying bacon in the employee cafeteria wafting into her nostrils. Her mouth watered and she wrinkled her nose. She shook her head clear of the olfactory assault and waited for an elevator in the stark white foyer. Devoid of plants or art, LCD screens in the foyer pumped out MediaCorp headlines – headlines Octavia wrote and released on screens in every Government Corporation building
Today’s headline screamed: Overpopulation boom hits critical levels — The Government forced to increase taxes. She wasn’t worried. She’d written that headline six months ago, the issue wasn’t even due to become classified as critical. Yet.
What did worry her was that reaction to frying bacon. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d eaten meat. At least before the water and food resource scarcity, when everyone discovered the financial advantages to ethical eating.
Was she going crazy, or was there an unusual amount of people around for 8:00AM on a Friday morning? Too much to drink last night’s screwing with my senses, she told herself. Probably explained why she felt so crowded by the swarms of people in the foyer.
She pulled her pin-striped collar up stiffly, wishing she’d checked for marks before she ran out the door this morning. Touching her neck, glimpses of last night raised her pulse. Max’s salty sweat dripping on her skin, the way she bit his shoulder, avoided looking into his eyes.
The palm implant buzzed in Octavia’s left hand. It’d buzzed since she’d left her apartment and walked Bellona through the Access Tunnel to her school drop off point. Bellona had protested. Mom, ten year olds are old enough to walk to school alone. Mom, I don’t need my hand held. Mom, I feel sick. Octavia had just clutched her hand more tightly and insisted that as her mother, she would continue to walk her to school and that the “I feel sick” trick would not work that morning. Not fair? Too bad, I’m the mother, she’d said.
Octavia had ignored her implant then and ignored it now. She was trying to train her staff out of the idea that they should use implants as their main form of communication – she still believed that it was better to talk in person. And it was less annoying than the constant buzz of someone expecting an immediate answer to their message. “Instant messaging does not equal an instant response,” she’d told them at least thirty times. That was one bad thing about working for the Government — you were expected to be “on” 24/7. How could they blame her for an inter-office relationship when all she did was work? If she ever got penalized for sleeping with Max from the higher ups, she’d probably even explain it like that.
A couple of elevators finally opened and people flooded out carrying boxes, folders, and office junk, while more people swarmed in, a free elevator no closer. Octavia gave up wondering what was causing the mayhem and decided to use the stairs. It would give her some alone time before she had to answer all the messages buzzing at her palm.
Standing in front of the mirror in the ladies room, Octavia ran her fingers through her damp, brown curls, trying to tame the frizz from the humid stairwell. Seriously, she thought, it’s nearly the 22nd century and we still don’t have anything to fix my frizz.
Examining the curls at her forehead, Octavia tried to ignore the women walking in and out with red, puffy eyes. Full moon? she wondered. Tempers always flared in the office around that time. Either that or the hormone levels in the office water supply were screwed again. Last time that happened, there were three fist fights between women, one shooting at management level and one pregnancy. Having your contraceptive paid for and supplied by your employer was good for the finances, but humans still made mistakes. I’m too busy to deal with another hormone break down, Octavia thought. Not this week.
Octavia handed some tissues to a weeping woman she vaguely recognized from accounting and walked down the corridor to her office, wondering what the hell was going on.
“I’ve been messaging you,” Max said to Octavia as she walked into her office. He’d been waiting for her, his coffee had stopped steaming. . Hopefully not for too long. He was an impatient ass at times.
“Remember that talk I gave our department about instant messaging not meaning instant contact? Yeah, just trying to practice what I preach.” Octavia took off her suit jacket, moving to hang it behind her door.
“Don’t hang it up.”
“I could barely stop them getting you a security escort.”
Octavia’s heart skipped a beat. She held her jacket slackly by her side. “Max, what are you talking about?”
“Your job. I’m so sorry.”
“What? What about my —”
“Redundancies across the board at your level. Honestly, you can’t take it personally, you’re among hundreds.”
“I haven’t even written the headlines for redundancies.” Octavia felt for a chair, the rush of blood to her head making her feel dizzy and faint. She sat down. “I write this sort of headline up to a year before it happens. What’s happened? What’s different this time?”
Max shook his head. “I don’t know, but it was above us. They must have had the executives do this on a highly confidential level.”
Mentally, she pulled figures together from her household accounts and budgets, trying to figure out how many months, years even, she could keep her family going before she had to worry about being unemployed. It wasn’t going to be easy getting a job at her age. Most employers thought thirty-five was getting on a bit.
“I got you a good pay out, I promise. I went in hard for you. And like I said, at least it’s not a security escort. You get to keep your dignity.”
“Dignity?” Octavia shook her head. Dignity didn’t matter. Money to look after her daughter mattered. She had enough saved, but the Government had placed children with more “suitable” parents for changes in income level. All part of their stable parenting policy, the FamilyCorp spokesperson had said. And what if they had to sell their Government compound apartment? They couldn’t live outside a compound. Only poor people did that. And she’d heard the rumors of what exposure to unfiltered air and water could do to you. Only a week ago she’d created a report with the help of ScienceCorp about mutations that polluted water caused. Bellona had never been exposed to dirty air, or UV rays, or even unfiltered water. Who knew what effect it would have on her health?
Think positive, she told herself, staring at her hands, I’m a hard worker, I’m qualified, I’m educated. I’ll get another Government job in no time. Octavia shuddered, thinking of those people who worked in menial positions and lived outside because they didn’t have the money for a compound apartment.
She looked back up at Max, scrutinizing his grey eyes. At least he only had himself to worry about. Had he known about this last night? She’d kill him if she found out he knew while they were sleeping together. Just kill him.
“How long have you known?”
“This morning. 6:00AM.” Max sighed, running his fingers through his black and grey hair.
She didn’t have to kill him. Yet.
“You’re on a waiting list for other Corp roles. Being vegetarian, you’re well qualified for the ResourceCorp.”
Octavia bit her lip, and silently prayed. You were no one in this world without the right job. A no one with no rights.
Back downstairs in the foyer with a bag filled with her belongings, Octavia walked past the cafeteria, still cooking bacon. Her stomach growled. It did a somersault when she remembered the last time bacon had smelled good enough to eat. She’d been in this same building, ten years ago, pregnant with Bellona.
You’re just paranoid after a bad morning, Octavia told herself, walking through the Access Tunnel. Put those stupid thoughts of pregnancy out of your head.
Octavia looked through the floor of the cylindrical, glass tunnel. The tunnel was climate controlled, and provided direct access from the compounds where the Government employees lived to the schools their children attended, the markets they bought their food at, the entertainment they used and the offices they worked in. It kept them safe from contaminants, and from people who couldn’t afford to live in the compounds. Though the tunnel was transparent, she’d always paid little attention to how the people without Corp jobs lived in their ghettos below. Looking down past her feet now, she cringed at how the apartment blocks were crammed together in a messy assortment of grey cement. Dirty smoke poured out of grey towers, and the streets were littered with bodies lying under papers and stained mattresses to shelter themselves from contaminated rain. How did you end up like that? Octavia asked herself. These people living below her had never had a Government job or the access to education and health care that went with a Government job. No wonder they were sick and dying.
A shiver ran through Octavia, prickling the hairs on her arms. She’d get that new job and earn enough money to keep their apartment. Women passed her in the tunnel with bags, boxes, and plants, like worker ants made redundant by their queen and being exiled from the nest. At this time of the morning, the traffic had to be all the redundancies. Lots of women exiting, Octavia thought. Come to think of it, no men leaving at all. What the hell was going on?
Octavia turned left at the Tunnel exit for her building and swiped her pass at the elevator waiting to take her to her unit. First thing she was going to do was make a green tea. With vodka. Then she’d start applying for jobs on the Government list. With a faint whoosh, the elevator stopped on her floor, then slid sideways to her front door. She swiped her pass again at the 71984 on the Government issue, stainless steel entry to her apartment, waited for the familiar click and pushed the door in.
“Hello, Octavia. I received the news of your redundancy from MediaCorp.”
Octavia sighed. “Yup.” Maidbots. The best thing and the worst thing. No privacy, ever. Little wonder she’d resorted to drinking and having sex in the office. She tried not to roll her eyes at Sally. She was only doing what she was programmed to do.
Sally’s stocky body, made from the same brushed steel as Government office blocks and access tunnel elevators, scooted up the hallway to help Octavia with her bag.
“I’ve taken the liberty of updating your CV so that you can approve it. I have a draft list of positions for you to review, too.”
Sally’s tone of voice was low, calm. She’d probably adjusted it so she’d be less likely to irritate Octavia in this time of stress. At times like this she wished that the bots didn’t have metal faces. Something more human looking wouldn’t be too bad right now. But couldn’t have the help looking too human now. The civil libertarians were already causing a furor over android rights as it was.
“Mom?” Bellona walked into the kitchen with her arms folded, a serious expression on her fair features. She pushed her dark brown hair behind her ears. Two more years, Octavia reckoned, before puberty would ruin its silkiness with frizz like hers.
“Why aren’t you at school?” Octavia asked. Bellona was always serious, but today she looked even more serious than usual. That was the problem with being too intelligent at that age. It would have taken her two seconds to realize that Octavia coming home early from work was not a good omen.
“I wasn’t lying about that belly ache this morning. I vomited when I got there! Sally brought me home. Why are you home?”
“Everything will be fine, sweetheart. I need a new job—”
“A new job?” Bellona raised her eyebrows, Octavia feeling like she was looking into a mirror rather than at her ten-year-old.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get to stay in school, I promise. We have savings. And I’ll get a new job before you know it.”
“Octavia, I need to do your routine unemployment tests to issue to HealthCorp.” Sally clanked across the kitchen floor, sidling up to Octavia with a thin metal protrusion to take a blood sample.
Octavia presented her index finger for Sally, the metal stinging as it quickly punctured her finger. No point resisting. The penalties for a late test weren’t worth it.
“What do you need tests for, Mom?” Bellona’s arms were still folded, but those little eyebrows had turned into a frown.
Sally pulled the metal swab inside her metal body and gears whirred softly.
“Just routine tests, darling. The Government needs some information.”
“What information?” Bellona asked.
“Positive,” Sally said. If Octavia didn’t know better, she’d almost have thought there was surprise in the ‘bots voice. But that’d be impossible.
“Mom,” Bellona insisted. “What is positive?”
Sally picked up Octavia’s palm and held her metal hand against it. “Transmitting your information now. I will book you in for an appointment with the Oby-Gyn tomorrow for your termination.”
“Termination?” Bellona’ arms dropped, tears forming in those doe-brown eyes. “They’re not going to hurt you, are they Mom?”
“No. No. Not at all. I promise.”
Her tears dropped. She started sniffling and ran to Octavia, putting her arms around her waist. At times Octavia forgot she was still only ten.
“It’s nothing. Just a small procedure I need.” Octavia kissed the top of Bellona’s head.
Termination. It sounded so clinical, so removed. The Government made thousands of women below the child income threshold have terminations. She’d be fine. But she’d barely had the chance to think about it. And she didn’t have much of a choice. If she didn’t turn up for her termination appointment, they’d sterilize her for good. She closed her eyes for a split second. How could this even happen after the last mistake with the hormone levels?
“If your mother was still in the appropriate earning bracket, you would have had a sister,’” Sally interjected.
Octavia glared, knowing it would have no effect on Sal. It still made her feel better. Maybe she needed to fork out for an empathy chip for the ‘bot.
“Aren’t you supposed to be unwell? I think you need to get back into bed and rest.” Octavia led Bellona to her bedroom and tucked her into her bed.
In her own bed that night, Octavia stared at the star scape etched across her ceiling in lights. Was it a mistake with the hormone levels in the water at work? she wondered, looking at Orion. The Hunter hadn’t been visible outdoors since she was a child. Octavia missed real air and seeing a blue sky so badly some days that tears squeezed out the corners of her eyes, and her throat clamped up. Just the same way tears were collecting and her jaw was clenching now. Tomorrow felt too soon.
Why should the Government make this decision about her body, her future? A new life grew inside her and so did a new anger. For the first time, she questioned the Government.
“We had to fight so that we could have abortions,” Grandma Nyx had told her when she was a teenager and the Government had mandated the income threshold to have children. “Those bastard politicians tried to tell us what we could do with our bodies and it’s happening again. You know they started jailing pregnant women so they couldn’t have abortions? We had to fight to get them legalized. It’s happening all over again, mark my words. More laws telling women what to do with their bodies.”
Octavia tapped her palm, turning its surface into a mini LCD screen. Max needed to know. Not that he could change anything. But screw it. This was half his fault. She traced a message to Max on her palm: “Sal booked me for a termination tomorrow. Hormones missing in the water at work? Crappy mistake. I expect MediaCorp to pay for this mess up.”
Her palm buzzed almost immediately in response. She tapped the screen once more and it closed, leaving her staring at her palm and squeezing out hot tears. The last thing she saw before her eyes closed was the Moon on her ceiling. Artemis would be the perfect name for another girl.
Octavia sat in the salmon and cream toned room, listening to the sound of long-dead sea animals being piped through the sound system. She lay on a heated table, a fluffy blanket keeping her lower half warm until the doctor arrived. Was that patchouli incense she could smell from somewhere? She always found it a little disconcerting how similar the doctor’s surgery and the spa seemed.
The Oby-Gyn doctor walked into the room, wearing a white coat and glasses. Octavia smiled at her. Her honey blonde curls and cuddly mid-section combined with her sensible, flat shoes and tortoise shell glasses gave the middle-aged woman a cuddly, motherly look that made Octavia feel comfortable. The doctor sprayed on disinfectant, then with another spray, covered her fingers in latex. “Another MediaCorp ex-employee? Must be something in the water there.”
Something in the water?
Or something not in the water?
Octavia’s heart climbed up her throat and a squeak escaped.
“I can help you, you know,” the doctor said without looking at her, filling a syringe from a bottle of anesthetic. “If you want to keep this baby.”
Octavia gasped. The penalties were horrific. For her and for the doctor who breached the policy. Was she really suggesting what she thought she was? Bitter saliva formed in her mouth, the desire to vomit engulfing her.
“I still need to put you under anesthetic and go through the motions. We have our supply levels measured bi-monthly by HealthCorp.”
“Why do you want to do this? How can I trust you?” Octavia asked.
“You think female doctors want the Government telling us what to do with our bodies? I’m not the only one. There are women like me in every Corp. Men, too. You’re not the only ex- Government employee in here this morning for a termination. You think the screw up in the hormone level was a mistake?”
Octavia held her breath. Do I? Do I want this? Her head ached with thoughts on how to hide an extra child and how to explain why she was going from fit to fat. And whether she was being used as a pawn in what sounded like someone’s much bigger game.
“How do you feel, Mom? Let me make you some tea.” Bellona pottered around the kitchen, making tea instead of letting Sally do it.
“Hello, Octavia,” Sally said. “HealthCorp issued your medical certificate to me. You have 5 days of ordered recuperation, and then you can commence job applications.”
“You’re ignoring my question, Mom!” Bellona pressed tea into Octavia’s hand.
“It went just fine,” Octavia said, and smiled.
Everything was going to be just fine.
She sipped her green tea and decided she’d enjoy her medically enforced time off. She walked to the fridge and looked at a slab of bacon, tempting thoughts of frying flesh making her mouth water. Thankfully, ‘bots didn’t have a sense of smell.
After spending 13 years working in the legal industry (8 of those years as a lawyer) in private practice law firms, the Australian government, and public companies in Australia, she moved to Canada and switched to the writing and publishing industries. She does frequent classes at Litreactor.com and has an informal workshop group from that site for fiction stories. She’s been published at, or has upcoming stories at: eFantasy, Plasma Frequency Magazine, Solarcide, and Beware the Dark.
When she’s not reading, writing, and writing law related things like contracts and terms and conditions, she enjoys swimming, reading, travelling, cooking, watching scary movies and cartoons, and being an insufferable vegetarian.