The tech at the door wore a heavy toolbelt. He looked angry. The ID collar around his neck pulsed as it broadcast his position to guards at the community gate. Menace radiated from the skeletal body under the rough black clothes and the bony hands under his thin composite gloves.
“You called for service?”
“Yes,” Darcy said. “The whole house is down!”
“You understand the terms. There’s no going back after you agree.”
Darcy pushed his two young teenagers back but stood his ground, even though his knees felt weak. His wife Brenda wept in the other room. The tech wore a recorder that made anything said a contract.
“I understand the terms. I agree. I have no choice.”
“You feel you have no choice? There’s always choice. Agreeing under duress ruins the contract. Sorry, but if you have no choice, then I can’t help.”
The tech turned and walked back toward the street. Under duress? Of course there was duress. Darcy’s house needed service. Sure, they could live without heat, without communication, without entertainment. They could live in a tent, or with the criminals on the un-gated streets.
“No! Please! I agree!”
The tech stopped. He considered. Then, Darcy heard him converse with the empty air. The communications equipment of any tech was hidden, but they had huge bandwidth connected directly to their Guildhouse. The tech returned, his face grim and bony.
“I consulted my Steward. I can try again. Do you want me to review the terms of service?”
Darcy struggled. He had to say this right.
“No, I understand the terms. I understand the price. I understand your discretion in setting price.”
“Do you agree?”
“Yes. I agree.”
The tech’s eyes went glassy as he listened to his home office. Finally, he nodded, slipped through the door like a wraith and went straight to the control room without asking for directions. Darcy followed, until he noticed his Betsy doing the same.
“No, you go to the den with your little brother. Take care of Mom.”
“Dad! Please? I told you I could fix it. Can’t I at least watch?”
The tech’s stride hesitated for just a half a step.
“Go now,” Darcy told her desperately.
The tech stopped. He turned, actually looked Darcy in the eye.
“She comes with us.”
“Yes, sir,” Darcy squeaked.
The tech slipped into the control room, but Darcy’s trembling girth wouldn’t fit. He stayed back and watched from the doorway. He prayed that good manners and cooperation would help where Betsy made things worse. He would be willing to beg if he thought it would help.
Meanwhile, the tech ran a cable from his belt to the console. A holographic display appeared. It was hard to read from an angle. Betsy squeezed in behind the tech, put both her hands on those skeletal shoulders and peered at the virtual screen, her nose nestled behind his flaky ear.
“Betsy! Show some manners!”
She didn’t budge. The tech made hand motions through the holograph, moving icons, reading, responding. He frowned, then his brow lifted higher over the ridge of his sharp forehead.
“How did you do this? How did you get in?”
“Factory password,” Betsy said. “Posted on the Web. I knew it wouldn’t work, user level, but I wrote an applet on my music player.”
“You plugged the player into your house?”
The tech made a final stab at a red dot with his pinky. Everything went black for a moment. He unplugged. The house booted up, and one-by-one the broken conveniences came back to life. The whole repair was done.
They squeezed out of the control room.
“No security on your player,” the tech said.
“You’re a teenager. You surf all the bad places, you get the newest malware.”
“This can’t be happening!” Darcy shouted. “Please, no!”
Brenda wailed from the other room, suddenly aware of consequences. She rushed in, her face blotchy and wet. She blubbered, dragging Davey in one hand, rushing over to take Betsy in the other.
“Oh, no, no...”
The tech took a grim, bony hand out of its glove and pointed to Betsy.
“She’s a human being!” Darcy yelled. “A child!”
The tech snapped his look over to Darcy, baring teeth and widening his eyes. The family quieted. Even Brenda held her breath.
“You made a deal,” the tech whispered. “Without people like us, everything would stop.”
If they refused to pay, they would forfeit their house. Service contracts for all future houses would be null. If they refused to pay, a collection agency would take payment anyway. There was only one way out of this.
“Please, Betsy,” Darcy said. “Not that. A tech?”
“You’re good,” said the tech to Betsy. “I respect your skill. Besides, the law requires that you make the decision.”
Betsy pried the hand of her mother from her wrist, gently, patiently. She kissed her mother on the cheek, then her brother. Her mother went to her knees, keening. Betsy stroked her mother’s hair, and last, she pecked Darcy’s nose, gave him a big hug. She reached around the corner and pulled out a big suitcase, already packed.
“You planned this?” Darcy said weakly.
“I’m so sorry,” the tech said. “It’s never easy.”
The suitcase whirred as Betsy powered it to the door. The tech followed, his tool belt rattling like bones of the dead. The techs had to replenish their number if they were going to support society. But letting a mere child choose? Betsy could change her mind but the stigma would last a lifetime.
“You could always visit?” she begged.
She knew they wouldn’t. Darcy felt the heaviness of loss settle into his soul as he watched her go and listened to the wailing behind him. A soul. She would give up her soul if she hadn’t already, learning that stuff. The worst thing, the thing that sank into him like pure pain? She never looked back.
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About the Author
This story marks the first professional sale for Steven Mathes, although he now has another story pending publication in Daily Science Fiction. Before this, his work appeared in several semi-pro publications, including On the Premises, A Fly in Amber, and OG’s Speculative Fiction. He has also published articles in computer magazines such as Linux Journal, but he finds that thinking about computers makes him feel unsettled while writing fiction has the opposite effect.
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Copyright © 2011, Steven Mathes.