Billie’s slippers made no noise at all as she padded across the Oriental rug in the rich wood-paneled foyer. They matched her gown, a lovely ecru confection with soft pink ribbons and lace. Clutched in her hand – covered by a long eggshell satin glove with pink stitching – was her invitation to this party, a heavy white card with delicate calligraphy. It had only two words: her name. She couldn’t remember how she got here, or how she knew to come.
A large woman in a strangely drab uniform and lab coat blocked her path, hand held out. Billie handed her the invitation. As the woman took it, Billie saw new words flash across the back in a familiar scribbling scrawl: ‘wake up’. She blinked and looked again, but the card had gone blank as the woman read it, glanced at her, then tucked it away in a pocket and stood aside.
Music began in the middle of a song as if it had been playing all along. Billie thought she recognized the classical piece, but couldn’t recall the name or composer. Mozart, perhaps, or one of those other long-dead men worshiped for their brilliance. She went towards it, wanting to find the source, or perhaps someone who could tell her what it was. More than anything, she wanted to dance to it.
She turned a corner and had to rub her eyes as the patterns in the rug formed those two words again – ‘wake up’. It returned to normal when she opened her eyes again, and she found herself in a grand ballroom, full of other woman wearing dresses just like hers in a dazzling array of colors and fabrics. Was her brown hair swept up and forced into curls that dangled around her face like everyone else’s? Why didn’t she know?
Lifting one hand, she patted her hair. Yes, she had curls, thick ringlets dangling all around and held in place by some kind of thick headband or scarf. Strange, she didn’t remember styling it or sitting for someone else to do it.
“Is this your first time?” The woman approaching her had a soft yellow gown with real slices of lemon decorating it. She held out a matching satin glove to take Billie’s hand with a gracious smile that didn’t reach her dull green eyes.
Billie nodded, too confused to find words. Something about the veined marble floors and crystal chandeliers felt wrong, but she couldn’t figure out what. Thinking about it was difficult, like trying to walk through knee-high mud. She slipped her hand into the woman’s.
“This is my fourth party. Let me show you around. I’m Claudia.” The woman squeezed her hand gently and walked her around the room. They picked up delicate glass goblets edged with gold and filled with sweet wine. Billie sipped at it while Claudia pointed out absurd details, like flying buttresses and carvings in the woodwork. She didn’t even know what a flying buttress was.
Claudia pointed to a dark wood chair with eagle claws for feet, gesturing for Billie to sit. The maroon upholstery on the cushion had a white fleur-de-lis pattern that changed to show the words again, this time scratched and urgent: WAKE UP. She didn’t feel tired, but sat anyway. Just as her bottom touched the chair, she felt a painful ache in her womb and blinked.
Bright lights filled her vision, and she was cold and naked, lying spread-eagle on some kind of metal slab. Her heart raced and she didn’t understand anything, except that someone was forcing something inside her and it hurt.
A man’s voice said, “Stop! She’s rejecting the program. Andy, fix that, now!” The pain in her lower abdomen eased, but not soon enough to stop her tears. As her eyes adjusted, she made out tubes snaking down into her arms and torso, and realized her wrists and ankles had been bound.
She heard the unmistakable sound of office chair wheels on industrial tile, then a figure slid into sight. He wore a face mask and cap like a surgeon, with large glasses distorting his eyes. “It’s okay, honey. Just relax. Don’t struggle.” This was a different man, and his latex-covered hand brushed her forehead tenderly, then slid to the back of her head. “You’ll be fine. You’re doing your part for your country, remember? You were chosen for this, it’s a special honor. Everything will be fine.”
“I want to go home,” Billie sobbed. She wasn’t chosen, she was conscripted. This wasn’t what they said it would be like, either. They said she’d be taken care of, and everything would be as painless and pleasant as possible.
“Soon, honey, soon.”
Something solid on the back of her head clicked and she blinked again. Back at the party, she sat on the chair with an empty goblet in her hand. She was supposed to be here, and she was having fun. The music sounded nice, it made her want to dance. She looked all around, but didn’t see any men to dance with, only women. How strange.
Claudia bent over her glass with a pitcher, filling her glass. Her mouth opened and her lips moved, but Billie only heard a whisper in her own voice. “Wake up.” She stared at Claudia, who looked at her expectantly.
Billie rubbed a glove across her forehead, confused and tired. Her fingertips came away with smears of blood that formed the words again, WAKE UP. This time, they didn’t go away. The words stared back at her, daring her to think and remember.
She blinked again and was back in the bright lights with a new ache in her lower parts. “Dammit,” that voice said again. “Andy, you said you fixed it. She’s conscious again!” Billie’s cheeks were still wet. She started crying again.
The man with the glasses rolled back into view. “Honey, if you don’t relax, this is going to fail. You don’t want to be a failure, do you?”
“If she comes back out again, we’re scrapping her.”
What did that mean? Billie fixed the glasses man with a fearful, questioning look. He sighed and shook his head a little. “Honey, if you fail, you’ll never go home. Take a deep breath and calm down. You’re not even impregnated yet.” He coached her to breathe several times, then she heard the click again and opened her eyes in the ballroom.
All she could see were letters of those two words, stacked in the shape of people, colored like their dresses. “No, I have to calm down. I have to relax. These are people. I’m having a good time.”
Andy looked down at the girl’s face as she opened her eyes again, for the last time. “I’m sorry, honey. I really am.” He didn’t need to be told what to do. She was the fourth failure from this batch. Covering her eyes with one hand, he pulled the spike out of the back of her head with the other. Such a waste. Her body went limp and the life left her.
“I’m taking a break.” He fled the room as quickly as he dared, ignoring the looks his coworkers gave him. In the bathroom, he splashed water on his face and stared at the sink. In the old days, people just had sex. This was the best way, everyone said. Had to protect fetuses from their irresponsible mothers. But we aren’t monsters, they said. Let them eat cake inside their heads.
Thank God he had two kids the old fashioned way before all this became mandatory. He protected his daughter from the lottery, too, so she’d never be on one of those slabs, at a party in her mind while her body was nothing more than an incubator.
He stepped out of the bathroom just as they wheeled the corpse down the hall without the dignity of sheet to cover her up. Someone downstairs would probably play with her before incineration. Turning away from the accusing stare of her blank, glassy eyes, he saw his boss watching him.
“The next one is ready. Let’s get through this batch today if we can.”
Andy nodded and rubbed his face. There was no point to delaying. Another girl with enough of her brain scraped out to die without the AI spike lay across the slab. The only thing to clean up was the paper record of the last girl’s brainwaves. He picked up the end and folded it for storage, only stopping at an oddity in the feed towards the end. The lines formed squiggles he had to peer closely to see.