by A.P. Thayer
Issue 13: QTPOC | 2,549 words
Peace of Night by Michael Eaton
I curl up on my side, my skin sticking to the plastic mattress, warm where I’ve been laying on it. The movement allows in too much air under the blanket, and my skin pebbles. I tuck in tighter, knees against my chest, breathing down between my legs, heating my thighs with stale breath, covering the gap with my forehead so the metal walls of my cube won’t steal away this little bit of comfort.
Five more minutes.
A single bar of gray morning light pours in through the window slit. It’s finally getting light earlier, at least. I’ve almost made it out of winter.
I squeeze my legs in tighter, as if I can occupy the same dimensional space with multiple parts of my body. The movement slides a corner of the blanket off my shoulder. Cold. So cold. It didn’t used to affect me like this.
I shut out the intruding morning, knowing two minutes isn’t enough time to sleep, knowing two minutes is too long to try and hold on to this waning body heat instead of getting up and getting ready.
But I just lay there anyway. This time is mine.
I squeeze my eyes tight. Colors swirl and dance behind my eyelids, colors more vivid than anything I can afford to see in real life, and for a moment I’m not in a metal cube, monochrome gray and sterile, but in a field of vibrant hues. The only memory of green that I still have. I was young, very young. Everything was lush. It smelled of damp earth. It was a forest in western Oregon, and everything was covered in a pale green lichen. Golden sunlight streaked against the trees, breaking through the silver clouds above. There was a rainbow.
My alarm goes off.
It’s a freeware version that only has three options. I vacillate between this one, a generic piano piece, and a more abrasive claxon, unable to make up my mind on whether waking up peacefully or suddenly will get me moving quicker. The third option is a one-minute guided meditation for wakefulness and focus. I only listened to that one once. It made me want to put my head through the fucking wall.
I let the piano play for a few moments, long enough for the piece to repeat twice, before rolling over to scan my wrist on the cube’s wall to shut it off. My current balance loads in the corner, a pulsing collection of pale digits, reminding me of my Tier 1 status. The opposite wall prints my morning sustenance. Another social program freebie.
The alarm, so I can get to work on time.
The cube, so I have somewhere to sleep.
The nutrient bars, so I don’t die.
You know, basic human necessities.
I stuff the mealy cake into my mouth and chew. The freeware version allows an alternating diet of vanilla, chocolate, and banana flavors for my morning meal. Mine has only been printing banana. I sent the service request seventy-three days ago, according to the blinking number on the printer. Banana was always my least favorite of the flavors and, anyway, it tastes mostly like metal now.
I make the quick commute calculation, mentally subtracting the tolls and fares to get from my cube to the plant, noting the daily route changes, closures, delays, and strikes. It defaults to optimal time, so I have to move the slider to ‘cheapest’ every morning before accepting the two-hour commute. The path flashes on the wall, and my balance blinks as the sum is subtracted. A little more math to calculate how many hours of work I’ll need to put in to cover the state-required minimum, the cost of the commute tolls plus taxes, and…
And, and, and…
I take a shuddering breath.
I swipe the wall, pushing my balance aside to look at a second one. My savings. I have seven minutes before I need to leave my cube so that I can make every stop on my route on time and not be charged late fees. I can spend a minute looking at that number, imagining all the things I don’t have, all the things I could have that I’m putting aside for it to grow.
Instead, I am among the lichen-covered trees once more. I count to sixty while my feet crunch the thick moss on the ground. Then, I start getting dressed.
I put my hood up and keep my gaze down to avoid the dizzying array of digital advertising and visual media floating above. There’s a cap on the charges for someone in my income bracket, and I’ve set it as low as possible. Better to simply not look, though. To never look. Willful ignorance. I leave the headlines, the announcements, and the advertisements alone. I can find out second hand, anyway.
The color from the screens reflects up from the rain-slicked sidewalk. Reflections are charged at a portion per glance. Their hues spill violently across the gray concrete. I focus on the blank cement between them, blurring out my periphery, and I get to the platform just in time for the shuttle to slide whisper quiet into place. The other passengers are talking with frenetic energy about what they see on the screens. Twos and threes, grouped together on their trips to work. They sound excited. Or worried. Maybe both. I don’t want to eavesdrop and risk being charged for the information transfer if one of them is an Affiliate, so I wait my turn in line, eyes unfocused on the light gray material of someone’s coat in front of me. It only looks gray to me. I can’t see their Tier 2 color.
I step up into the shuttle and settle into the designated square painted on the floor. The doors slide shut. The inside screens start playing, and I close my eyes against the barrage of visual noise.
Dildo. No. Vibrator.
One more incorrect identification. A flashing question mark next to what the AI identified as a pencil. The image lingers on my monitor, and the counter beside it reaches zero before counting into the negatives. Where is it?
Pen. Got it. The image sweeps to the left, and the next one loads. The counter resets with only seven seconds for this one, carrying over the deficit from the last. A police slide, taken from one of their drones.
It’s in pieces. That’s why the AI missed it. I tap on the three incorrect images, connect them to the question marks. The metallic banana taste of breakfast crawls up my throat as the image slides to the left. On to the next. I’m back on track.
“You taking lunch today?”
Ernesto hovers between my desk and the knot of coworkers waiting for him.
I shake my head. “Working through it.”
He nods. He knows. The others think I’m asocial, but I told him what I’m saving up for.
“Are you sure? I’m buying. I’m getting upgraded.”
He’s moving into the socioeconomic bracket above mine. Most people at the plant already are. It’s one of the ways of advancing within Tier 1. Everyone at the plant is still well below the minimum income and education needed for Tier 2, though. I hear Ernesto will get morning bar flavors like maple syrup pancakes, mocha, and spinach omelet.
The counter keeps clicking into the negatives on the slide.
I tap the items on the screen and shake my head. “Thanks, Ernesto. I should get back to it.”
His brow furrows, but I look down at the next slide. I feel him waiting a moment more and I wonder if I have the strength to say no if he asks again, but he steps away and joins the others. I swallow the lump in my throat and try to catch up on my counter.
I focus on the part of me that’s glad he has stopped asking me out. On dates, at least. It was hurting both of us too much every time I said no.
I’m the last one out. Always am. I almost miss the first shuttle of my commute, but manage to jump in just as the doors whisper shut. I jostle some people around me, angry eyes flashing over masks as I settle into my assigned square. The rocking rhythm of the shuttle sliding through traffic weighs on me, and my eyes blur, stinging from fourteen hours of staring at pictures. My eyelids droop, and I surrender to the fatigue.
The forest is warmer than I remember. Humid. It feels sticky, but not unpleasant. For a moment, I remember what it’s like to feel warm. I reach next to me and intertwine my fingers with my mother’s, grasping her hand tight. She smiles down at me. My mother is little more than a dark silhouette edged in gold. She squeezes my hand and I sneeze, unused to everything in the air. So many smells, so clean. The green is so alive it almost glows. There’s a low buzzing of insects.
“You have to get off, man.”
The voice startles me awake. My face is numb where it was pressed against the cold metal bar. The shuttle driver, whose clothes mark her Tier 1, but higher than me, shakes her head at me and gestures to the open doors. I squint out the window to catch my bearings and catch sight of a billboard. There’s an immediate deduction of my balance, and I look down.
“Where am—where are we?”
She puts her hands on her hips. “End of the line.”
If only. I squint up at the map on the side of the shuttle. Lancaster. Fuck.
“How do I get back to Sylmar? I need to get on the Bernardino line.”
She shakes her head at me and points. Across the way, beneath the glare of a myriad of flashing screens I shield my eyes from, is another platform. “Cut across over there. You’ll have to update your route.”
I thank her, make the calculations, and sigh before transferring money out of my savings. My stomach gurgles. It’ll have to wait another couple of hours until I’m home and I can choose between my evening nutrient bar flavors of soy and spicy.
The shuttle slides away, heading off the lot to retire for the evening, leaving me alone at the station.
No. Not alone.
A willowy shape leans against one of the hundreds of poles holding up blinking screens. The colors splash down on them, a sea of expensive colors converting them from demon to angel to static to everything and nothing in between. There’s still forty minutes until the next shuttle. I close my eyes, hoping to capture the dream I was just having. The green seems harder for me to find.
“Can’t afford to look at them?”
My eyes flip open in surprise and I catch one of the screens in the corner. Another deduction.
“What?” It’s one of those times where you say what even though you know what the question was. I don’t keep the annoyance from my voice.
The figure steps out of the splashing pools of reds and oranges and purples. Long coat, black mask to match the stringy hair draped down past their shoulders. Thin. Frail almost. Bright, wet eyes reflecting the world of colors above us. They take a few steps closer, cutting the distance in half, down to only a few paces. I look away from the screen reflections in their eyes.
“You make your own, though, don’t you?” They ask. The voice is deep. Raspy. Sultry, even. I blink my eyes hard. Maybe this is a dream.
They laugh, a musical tittering that is more nightmare than dream, and they step even closer. Closer still. I tense. All alone in a strange district. I suddenly think of Ernesto at his desk identifying objects around my corpse.
The figure takes another step closer and I catch more details. The finer stitching. The waterproofing. The nails painted colors I can’t see. Tier 3. Pale fingers tipped with expensive nail enhancements dance up from the inside of their coat and pluck at the mask, pulling it down to reveal a frail nose, the nostrils hardly more than slits, over a mouth filled with brilliant white teeth, pressed together in what no one could ever call a smile. They pluck at my wrist, reading my tier off my bracelet. My name. My status.
“Santo,” they say, working my name in their mouth before leaning in closer. “Did you hear about the regulation today?” Their voice is torn silk, their breath hot on my cheek. They smell like fruit. Real fruit.
I shake my head.
“No, of course not. Someone like you wouldn’t have.”
They get even closer, their mouth almost brushing my ear. The lenses in their eyes whirr, their feelers drag along my skin, tasting me.
“That’s a wonderful memory you have.”
I slide the door to my cube closed and peel off my clothes.
The water is scalding hot. I can afford it now. Old habits kick in, though, and I shut it off after only a few seconds of rubbing my skin raw. The steam fills my cube, and even though I know I’m cleaner than I’ve been in months, I feel the opposite.
I’m in the forest. Lichen covers everything. Light breaks through the clouds.
Everything is gray.
I slide the wall of my cube to show my balance. It blinks a new number at me and I initiate a transfer. A much larger transfer than I ever have. I swipe to my savings. More than enough for the upgrade.
On a whim, I pull up the node I’ve been ignoring for months.
“Hello?” A woman’s face fills the wall of my cube. Jesus, she looks so much older now. Deep lines crisscross her face. Her hair is mostly white, wisps of it sticking out at odd angles. She looks like someone’s draped pieces of cloth over a skull. Her cube doesn’t look much bigger than mine. Her walls are bare except for a single photo.
“Hi,” I say. My voice is weak.
She squints at me. “I’m sorry, mijo. Do I know you?”
I grit my teeth and swallow the acid clawing up the back of my throat. “It’s Santo.”
She narrows her eyes at me, before smiling. “That’s a lovely name. My son’s name is Santo.” A voice calls out over a speaker in the background of the care facility. Medication time. “I’m waiting for his call, actually. I have to get off the line.”
The image distorts then fades as she hangs up on me. I sob, allowing myself that one tortured breath before I bring up another node.
“Good evening, Citizen Services.” A bright, shining woman’s face. She’s Tier 2. I can tell from the stripe of color in her hair.
“Hi, I would like to upgrade someone to Tier 2, please.” I can’t believe how steady my voice is. Her smile falters for only a second as she double checks my account. Then it’s back, stronger than ever.
“Of course, let me transfer you to the upgrade department, Mr. Torres.”
A.P. Thayer is a queer, Xicano author based out of Los Angeles. He writes speculative fiction that blends horror, magic punk, grimdark, and science fiction. His work has appeared in Dark Recesses Press, Uncharted Magazine, Los Suelos, CA, Glitter + Ashes: Queer Tales of a World That Wouldn’t Die, Made in L.A. Vol. 3: Art of Transformation, Murder Park After Dark: Volume 2, and other publications.
He is a co-host on The Genre Hustle, a writing craft podcast focused on speculative fiction, and a staff member at Constelación Magazine. When he’s not writing, he can be found cooking for his friends, running a game of Dungeons & Dragons, or cuddling Sir Flynn Butters, a demanding Shih Tzu. Find him at www.apthayer.com or on social media under the handle @apthayer.