When I arrived at the Goozonx Station, the goods and service road train parked already taking up the width of the Crowsnest's eastbound lane. Its silver metal body stretched to both sides further than I could see. Countless queues of people carrying backpacks lead away from the Goo like the remaining limbs of a partially amputated centipede. Nobody said a thing, everybody double-checked their digital grocery lists and the other items they would pick up from their weekly delivery while the curbs and the shadowy sides of the houses around us were filled with the hairy bodies of the rats waiting to get their share whenever somebody dropped something eatable.
The grocery lists were mailed out automatically from your device to the Goo when you entered the perimeter of fifty metres. They matched the list from your home, from smart fridge to smart toilet, the central studio computer registered any shortcomings: empty milk, toilet paper low, socks kaput, generic rubber boots or umbrellas worn out, you never ran out of anything—and you got it before it broke. My 55er wasn't the newest, but it still did the job fine, and I appreciated the service and the information I received, and the entertainment, of course. It saved me so much time and energy.
Mistakes happened though, not even the Goo was perfect, that's why I tried to keep track of what I needed. Last month I found out my toothpaste was empty, although I had been to the Goo that very day. Rastan chuckled and stressed an old saying: smart things are just as smart as their users.
The heads of the shoppers bent down against the drizzle, their faces illuminated by the ubiquitous device glow, which turned them paler than they were, especially people with a lighter complexion became ghosts of themselves.
I scrolled through my list: a bar of hand soap, screen polish, sponge, and at the end: dentist. I opened the link for more information: during the last three consecutive days, my toothbrush reported a slight gum bleed.
No wonder without toothpaste. So I had to go all the way to the last car of the Goo, where the public services were provided: doctors, social workers, lawyers, city officials.
The woman behind me grunted, and I turned around.
She volunteered the answer before I could ask, «I watch the police body camera channel.»
«Pretty wild stuff on there.»
«Did you ever tune in?»
«No, I'm more into Justine.»
The person in front of me left, I turned around and tugged my 55 away, let my backpack slide off my shoulder, approached the Goo, knelt down and held my open backpack underneath the chute. It opened immediately, and my supply rumbled into my bag. At the same time my stuff left the Goo, tiny click sounds indicated the items from my list were fully delivered. In vain I waited for the new black contact lenses that so many people got already, so I stepped aside for the next person and dropped the Goo service department a friendly note. Now I had to trot to the end of the road train to see the dentist. I was glad the bag wasn't too heavy.
Each time I had to cross a lineup, I apologized and met the annoyed eyes of others waiting for their turn. If I'd semicircle around them, it would take me an hour longer to get there.
The silver walls of the Goo were slick and went all the way down to cover the wheels for the most part, so nobody could accidentally be rolled over. It saved hundreds of lives each year. As a matter of fact, two years ago the Goozonx headquarters demonstrated the Goo's safety features by plowing on purpose at 20km/h through a busy intersection not seriously hurting anybody. They just plowed the people aside. Thanks to the winged wedge in front of the Goo, the road train didn't even run over anybody's toe.
I remember the piles of people on both sides of the street, all of them applauding the Goo, at least everybody, who had both hands free. The ones with just one hand free clapped whatever they could hit, to make a sound, their cheeks or those of others in the pile.
Slogans blinked from integrated screens off the Goo's walls to make the wait time feel shorter: 'We rig, You dig', 'Are You Happy?' and 'Do You make Sense?—If not there are options!', 'Vote the Penguin Party, because: who can be angry with a penguin?', and whenever I went by the first part of each car, I heard the pedalists inside singing, convicted criminals sentenced to life muscle-powering the Goo to serve the public, to give a little back from what they had taken, whatever that was, a win-win situation for both sides. Since jails became obsolete, the society saved the money to run them, and the prisoners had more exercise and social life. Up to twenty sat in each car and muscle-powered the Goo. A main road Goo could be up to twenty cars long. There were no windows, but I heard they had screens inside.
Door after door, I checked for the dentist. Every time they were in a different cubicle. As if they wanted to confuse their customers on purpose. The first door belonged to a public health insurance officer, then a mediator, a psychiatrist, a justice of peace, basic income investor, an organ agent, a drop-in suicide administrator and finally the dentist.
: : :
Over my device, I announced my arrival. The dentist's door slid open, and I took the single step up. Behind me I heard the whizzing sound of the door closing, I dropped my backpack and bumped my head against the ceiling. I couldn't stand up straight in the dentist's office, the ceiling wasn't even six feet high.
She apologized while getting up from the dentist chair, putting a drink aside on a tiny shelf, apparently made solely to hold a glass, «Sorry, we have double-decker cubicles since last month. There is a fortune teller above me. Come, here», she padded the back of the dentist's chair.
The woman suffered from growth hormone deficiency, her curly salt and pepper hair didn't reach my Noddy. Her size was perfect for the height of this cubicle. Or did they grow them that way? A weird thought.
I took her offer and hopped into the plastic recliner. With one finger she laid my mustache to the side.
Dr. Trutch read her name tag, which hung on the white coat in the same unmotivated angle as her dark round sunglasses, fastened with a rubber band behind her head. I didn't blame her for wearing them, this office cubicle featured radiating white walls casting no shade whatsoever, a little wider than the dentist chair, maybe three metres long. Since the chair had no armrests, my arms dangled down, the knuckles touching the ground.
«Bleeding gum, huh?», she said.
«Yes. Something went wrong with my toothpaste order.»
«Did you notice it yourself?»
«Only after I saw it was empty.»
«I mean, the bleeding gum.»
«Oh, no, no I haven't noticed it. My toothpaste was empty, and the Goo didn't spit any out for me. I filed a complaint, but I haven't heard back, yet.»
«Open your mouth.»
«Could my bleeding gums have anything to do with me not having toothpaste for about a month?»
«You're pretty focused on that toothpaste thing, aren't you?!»
«Dentists always make me nervous. Nothing personal.»
«Open your mouth, please.»
Dr. Trutch's left eyebrow lifted up over her shades, when she came close with the flashlight function of her device. With the little round mirror in her other hand, she exclusively seemed to test the durability of my teeth, she clanged and banged on all of them as if being trapped inside, like a bird, panicking to find the way out of a room.
She took her wrecking ball of a mirror out, «Get mouthwash. Once a day. I reset your toothbrush with a one-month deadline. If the bleeding is not gone by then, we have to pull your teeth.»
«All of them.»
I cranked my head up, «For bleeding gums?»
«At more than three places if that spreads, then bacteria enter your bloodstream, they can go into your brain and organs causing… all sorts of shit.»
«All sorts of shit?»
«We don't want that, right?»
«Or do we?»
«No, no», my fingers played with the end of my mustache.
«Then I'll see you then.»
«Fifty-fifty chance. Gargle!»
I pictured her wearing her shades kneeling on my chest with a pair of pliers in her fists, yanking out my teeth, one after the other.
A loud mechanical noise above us, the dental office vibrated.
Rubbing the top of my head, I asked, «What does she do up there? Sounds like she is sawing a hole in the ground.»
«Yeah, no, people would fall through. But if she predicts it… before it happens… would look good on her resume.»
«Or she puts a table on top of the hole.»
«You would hear her work.»
«And she would hear me too», she said to herself massaging the chin, «Then she's better off without a hole.»
«Are you done?», I asked.
I got up and rammed my skull into the ceiling with the force that lets you smell blood in your nose.
«They should do something about that», Dr. Trutch looked through her sunglasses up at the ceiling, «That's the fourth tile this week.»
My noggin had put a dent in the material.
«You get the bill in 24 hours.»
«I thought the dentist is still included in the basic income package.»
«Dentist yes, destruction of Goozonx property not so much.»
«I didn't do it on purpose!»
«You can get a lawyer, two doors down.»
She interrupted me with a hand gesture, «Raising your voice is a form of aggression that is not tolerated according to the bylaws. I ask you to leave now, or I call security. Goodbye.»
I pressed my lips together.
«And don't forget to gargle.»
: : :
Halfway home, evening darkness spilled into the side streets without lanterns—only the Crowsnest and main roads were illuminated, other areas were considered a waste of energy, and those who didn't like it dark could light their way home with their devices.
The hum of my 55 announced the incoming video call from Berat. My younger brother and I stayed in contact at least once a week. If he didn't call-in I threw him a message on Sundays. With my «Take call» I pulled the device from my belt and shielded the screen against the rain with my hand and my downward tilted head.
Berat laid in his bed, one tube went straight into his throat, another tube into his nose. He looked tired, more tired than usual.
He waved. «Hey bro.»
«Hi», I looked for a dry spot to video call in peace. The Filling Station Café was just around the corner. «Just a sec.»
I started running slalom around the people with my backpack hopping up and down on my shoulders, crossing a busy Rickshaw and bike-lane until I reached the roof of the former gas station. I plopped down on the first free chair I found, at a table for two. The guy on the other side didn't mind, his head stuck in a screambag, and he couldn't see or hear me through the pumpkin-sized padded leather ball. He wore a plastic suit and a tie underneath this plastic overall, his arms were dangling down, and merely the tremors which rattled through his body indicated when he screamed.
A cup of hot chocolate steamed untouched in front of him in the puddle of water on the slate-coloured table. I glanced to the left and to the right, nearly all seats were taken this time of the day. Many customers had their backpacks between their feet while they were checking their messages, chatting with friends and family over their devices or playing online games. Everybody staring in a different direction as if to avoid eye contact with anybody else—digital quarantine.
Nobody paid attention to us, so I grabbed the hot chocolate and drank half of it—at least so I thought, but when I checked, the cup was almost empty. Delicious. Then I placed it back in front of the screambagger.
A few years ago screambags became popular. It didn't matter where you were, you could just pop one over your head and scream as loud as you felt, with nobody hearing you. A marvelous invention. With so many people everywhere, thin walls and often shared accommodations, it wasn't easy to find a place to let it all out. I didn't owe one, they were too expensive, but I borrowed one a couple of times from a rent-&-share, and it really makes you feel better afterward.
His body shivered again, I heard a slight tinny sound through the leather. This guy had quite an organ.
«Arthur, are you ready?», asked my brother with throaty “Chrrr” sound between every word.
I put the audio on ear plug, so we could have a private conversation, and said, «Yes.»
He spoke softly and slowly, the heavy breathing breaks after every word turned his message into a marathon of tension, «To make it short, I'm not doing well, there were complications, I need surgery, brain surgery, my right side, and there is a problem.»
Barely did I hear the raindrops hitting the ground, the roof, concrete, metal, umbrellas, the plastic coats and the puddle on the table.
«Arthur?», he asked.
I realized I had held my breath, «Yes, yes», tears welled up in me. He wouldn't be so worried if there were no reason, he was a real trooper. I fought back the tears, «What is the problem, the tumor?»
«No, not the tumor, the surgery is, it's not covered.»
«How much is not covered?»
«Nothing at all.»
It wasn't about the risk the surgery came with like in the past, this time the general insurance didn't cover the procedure.
Commotion on the screen. A doctor appeared and introduced herself with a name I forgot as soon as she said it. She rambled on in medical terms in a nonchalant way, generally found by speakers at board game conventions.
I wanted to see my brother. I wanted to be presented with a solution, ideally coming up with it myself. The woman lectured me about the development of my brother's condition and how much she would like to accommodate his medical needs.
«Stop», I said, when I saw no other way to end her spiel, «How much?»
After a beat Dr. Iforgothername said, «12,000 volt.»
She might've just asked me to produce a million watts in a month, I never owned that much money, and I never would.
The woman plastered a priest-like smile onto her face, «We sure could arrange for convenient biweekly installments, payments that will ...»
«Can I talk to my brother?»
«As you wish.»
He appeared again on screen.
«Bro», I said with a chunk of mud in my throat.
Berat wiped his face dry, the IV drip dangling from the back of his hand.
«Calm down», I said.
«Art. What… what, what?»
«Don't panic. I don't know, I need some time, how much time do I have?»
«I can tell you how much time I have. They say it can deteriorate fast, they are talking days.»
Ideas wanted to bubble up, only to be immediately suppressed by the sheer lack of time. I needed time myself, «I call you tomorrow.»
«Art, I don't think this works… How do you want to … This is it, bro. Let's say goodbye and …», I now had to quickly end the call, I didn't want him to see me crying, nor did I want to give him the chance to say his final toodles, «No. This is not it. I call you tomorrow. Cheers.»
My 55 flopped shut next to the hot chocolate, and my hands found my face, elbows on the table. I ended up covering my eyes with my palms. Somehow that helped holding back the tears.
I concentrated on my breathing, trying to come up with an idea to save my brother's life. 12,000 volts, the number pulsated in my head. We had no savings, I couldn't sell anything, and I couldn't find a job that would pay some extra volts. We would get no credit from the credit bureau, and I didn't know a rich person that would just transfer me the money—paying back was out of question.
The device hummed on the table, my hand opened it.
Hegesia said, «Hi Arthur, I thought I give you a quick call, check in, how the whistling went?»
«Not good at all.»
«Do you have an explanation?»
«Do you want to see me tomorrow, I can free a spot and schedule you...»
«No, no, no», with every word my voice rose, «Not now», I closed my 55, «Not now», I rubbed my temples.
My younger brother, my last relative would become a casualty of the healthcare system, a casualty of my own inability to find a job that would pay on top of the basic income. I wasn't even capable of whistling properly after all these years.
My lips started quivering.
«Hey», the man said, «Everything all right?»
I looked up, he had taken off his screambag. His head was red and his hair scruffy. Carefully he pulled down his freshly trimmed mustache.
«You want to take a holler?», he balanced the screambag in his right, «This one's the best, I tell you.»
He definitely didn't strike me as unhappy right this moment, not only compared to me, but his whole appearance was chipper, chewing gum with his mouth open.
«Come on, don't be shy, this thing is new, got it yesterday, was a deal, works like a charm, newest model, it is nice and tight and you still can breathe in it, no smell of toxins, and I'm not contagious.»
«Who could turn down such an offer?», I said.
«Here you go.» He threw me the screambag.
«Thanks. Wow, this one is light!» I said.
«Just about twelve kilos. Brand-new, extra light material, you will love it.»
«As long as you want, until you feel better, in the meantime I drink my hot… chocolate. Huh? Did I already?»
The screambag slipped over my head like it was made for me. Instantly it was dark and quiet, no noise from the outside, and I couldn't even hear myself breathing or the blood rushing in my ears
The inside padding was still warm from the owner's session, and it smelled faintly like peppermint.
I took a deep breath and screamed as loud as I could.