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Science Fiction Speculative East Asian

I noticed a rose-colored slip stuck in my door, wondering who needed to leave a physical piece of message. After all, no one used mail these days. Communication had been streamlined to ocular portals, the transparent screens installed across one wall in the living room, and everyone was expected to carry their mini portal no matter what. Reaching for the slip, I jerked my hand back when its edge stabbed my hand.

Ah—I forgot that the edges could be ‘sharp.’

It was not as if I knew nothing about the slip’s production. A brief unit of education had been dedicated to before the Great Disaster, including their inventions of these slips and graphitic and ink-based writing instruments. I had forgotten most of my knowledge of it, and even now the generic name for the slip escaped my mind.

Spreading my fingers wide, I plucked the slip out by holding the flat sides and stepped inside my house. I didn’t look at it yet because I was tired. The new order that came in today required the processing of ten tons of cattle meat, and we only managed to finish the first ton. Rarely did we ever have to process live commodities—Tuansi asked for those every once in a while, and I supposed that today was that time.

The ocular portal in my living room chirped, indicating that it knew of my return and had synched with my mini. The screens always tinted blue when they did, and I could watch a blurred reflection mimic my every move. That reflection started stripping off clothes as I did, leaving them in the hamper in the hallway. It was hot in the house too.

I took a shower, and, after the droning water washed away my fatigue, I remembered the slip I had left on the counter. I returned to it and finally read it.

Congratulations,

You have been chosen

There were no other words until I happened to lessen my thumb’s pressure on the top, letting the slip pop open and revealing two layers. A fold, I remembered, created more compartments to the slip. How deceptive.

Tomorrow, visit this address. Your workplace has been notified so do not call them. Bring only your miniature ocular portal. A person in multicolors will be waiting for you.

Although I wondered who had the authorization to wear multicolors, the instructions were simple. I made a note of the date in my mini, set the slip aside, and went to bed.

Somewhere in the fog of the dreamland, I dreamt of my workplace, but instead of processing silverware, cups, or even meat, I was processing the slips. Over and over, the rose-colored rectangles received approval, and dread slithered under my skin.

When I woke, there were no duplicates of the slips. I started getting ready for visiting the address dictated by the writing, deciding to forget about the dreamy dread. The slip said nothing about dress code, but to be safe rather than sorry, I dressed in my solidcolor function garments, the ones we were required to wear when attending social events. Passing into the kitchen, I shuffled to the table and ate the food there. Every day, at both eight in morning and evening, a gelatinous block of sustenance would appear. I never could figure out how the plate of food would appear on time without fail and disappear once I was done. It never appeared or disappeared when I was watching it, but I supposed that that didn’t matter.

I finished eating and stepped out, plugging the address from the slip into my mini to direct me. The sun above was blinding , and my clothes started clinging to me with perspiration the longer I walked under its rays. It was always too hot. People started filling the streets, most likely walking to their work destinations. A couple times, gazes would catch mine, so we would nod to each other. Some people I recognized, but I didn’t know their names.

At the address, I waited at a wall at the end of the road. It was a single wall without decorum. No one walked here. The closest building was too far away to cast shade, so the rising sun beat down on me.

When someone finally arrived, I first noticed their clothes not because of the multicolors but because they barely had any. The shirt barely covered their chest and belly button, and their pants exposed their knees. Impractical and inappropriate. Because of the ineffectiveness of their clothes, I also saw more of another’s skin than I had ever seen before. They had pale skin, and I wondered if everyone looked like that underneath their clothes. Their gait bounced up and down, and the ends of their lips also stretched upward. They wouldn’t stop even as they started to speak to me.

“Hello! Were you the one who received a pink paper?”

Ah—paper, that was the generic name for the slip. I nodded, handing it over.

“Great! Follow me, and I’ll guide you.”

The person turned around and had us walk in the direction that they had come from. Hesitation slowed my steps. The street ended at this wall, and no one was allowed off the cement. But this person strut off the cement and onto the dirt without fear. The person turned around a moment after I had stopped.

“What’s wrong?”

“The road.”

“What about it? Oh, don’t worry about that. You’re with me now.”

As if to ease me, they walked back and kept with my slow pace as I tottered on the uneven ground. The trek felt long, and the person seemed to think so too, because they sighed.

“I’m bored just walking. Let’s talk. Do you like my clothes?”

They hopped a step ahead and twirled, freezing their limbs in an unnatural position above their head and out from their stance. I contemplated whether to murmur some agreement or to say the truth. In the end, I thought it better to be safe than sorry.

“Yes.”

The ends of their mouth lifted even higher, and their mouth wouldn’t close as clipped huffs escaped them.

“Thank you! I got these from the Yizhuang District!”

The garments processing area. Cross-district traveling was forbidden, so maybe they had requested the clothes.

“I guess you don’t know where that is though. We’re in the Chuju District.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just nodded.

“I have this set of chopsticks that I absolutely love that came from your district. It has pretty violet flowers… Oh, you don’t know what violet is, right?”

I could have feigned a lack of knowledge. At my workplace, I often did so. My co-workers didn’t know the names of dyes we mixed or sometimes the objects we processed. That was fine because knowing wasn’t necessary to work, and I hadn’t wanted to seem different. But at this person’s certainty of my ignorance, something compelled me to stop and look at my guide.

“I do.”

“You do?”

“Yes. If you combine the color of your shirt and your shoes, they would produce violet.”

The ends of the person’s mouth stopped stretching upwards. Instead, their lips parted like the mouth of a cup before they turned forward again. We didn’t speak for the rest of the walk. We eventually came to a metal contraption that rumbled and forced my body to move as it did. Cold chilled the inside, and after a bit of silent searching, I found that the cold came from two vents between my seat and my guide’s. As I stared at the invisible air, the person made a small sound.

“Since you know them, what’s your favorite color?”

“What is ‘favorite’?”

“The one you like best.”

I swayed with the contraption for a moment, wondering if this was a test to prove my competence or my ignorance.

“You can pick more than one,” the person said, little huffs in their words again.

“Then all of them.” I looked down at my garments. “Except for white.”

“Understandable.”

I looked from my white clothes to the multicolors of my guide’s, and for the first time in years, I decided to pitch the end of my sentence up.

“Why do you know the colors?”

The person looked at me, their eyes blown open, before turning back to the path. The veins along their arms holding the round wheel that steered the contraption bulged.

“Do you know Tuansi?”

“The client we work for. The one who provides,” I said, recalling the words that had been pounded into my memory since I was small and in school. I knew it was the right answer, but their reaction confused me. They let out another sigh, and the ends of their mouth turned down instead.

After meandering in the contraption, the dirt road rounded out into a wide circle. My guide tapped into a keypad between us, and the world flashed blue, forcing me to shut my eyes. When I opened them again, the dirt had disappeared. Cement still paved the ground, but everything else had changed. Instead of the same pentagonal shape for houses and the occasional rectangle for workplaces, buildings belonged to every shape. Triangles apexed into the sky, domes curved perfectly, and irregular cones jutted out in all directions. We passed one close to us, and I thought that I could touch it if I reached for it.

More metal contraptions walked the road with us, people inside like us two. From what I could see through the tinted windows, they all dressed similarly to my guide—short clothes, multicolored, or patterned. Even their hair dyed in shades of blue, green, violet, and red, their mouths turned up. Some of the metal contraptions walked faster than ours, and in the blur of one passing by, I thought I saw someone in similar clothes to mine.

“Uhm, there’s somewhere I want to stop at before we head to the… workplace.”

Their fingers tapped against the wheel and their eyes kept glancing at me. Perhaps that comment warranted my response.

“Okay.”

We veered left and only stopped once we arrived at a certain house. At least, I believed that it was a house. The shape resembled a square with the top pressed in. My guide seemed to want me inside quickly, turning their head back and forth along the street. Once we were inside, I anticipated the sound of ocular portals synching, but none came. The inside was as different as the outside; the layout had more hallways, more furniture, and cold blasted out from somewhere.

“Qiyi? Did you return from work already?”

Another person, also multicoloredly dressed, walked around the corner. They had mini lines in their face that flexed as they spoke, flexing more as they stopped. I stopped too because I had never seen someone who was visibly older.

“Qiyi! Who is this—this worker?”

“Mama, shh!”

My guide left my side and took ‘Mama’s’ arm, dragging them around another corner. Their voices almost hushed.

“Qiyi, did you bring your delivery here? Why—”

“She asked me a question! Workers don’t do that! Maybe she’s special, and we can repeal on her behalf—”

“No! There’s not enough for us. Why do we have to give up our comforts for others?”

“But Mama, she recognizes colors too! That’s so rare! And when I asked if she had a favorite, she looked at her clothes and said all of them but white. Doesn’t that mean she hates life as a worker?”

“Qiyi, no. The sponsorship doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a method to give hope to the workers, like Tuansi.”

Their voices hushed considerably after that. My lack of ignorance had been exposed, but I more wondered why they spoke as if they were not workers too. Perhaps they weren’t since that would explain the luxurious use of cold air. Credits dolled out only twice a year.

My guide—‘Mama’ called her ‘Qiyi’—stepped out from the corner. Her mouth ends curved down like the head of a spoon, but when she looked at me, they did their best to shimmy back up.

“Hey, let’s eat something good before we go.”

Qiyi took me by the arm, and the sudden heat in the cold made me jump, but as my guide pulled me into another room, gentle, I thought that this heat felt pleasant. The room seemed like a kitchen from the table identical to mine, but more furniture than I recognized also took up space here. And it was noisier. Mama stood at a big pot and stirred something with chopsticks.

My guide guided me to the tableside before reaching underneath and pulling out a keypad. They tapped in a code, and, like at the dirt circle, blue flashed at me. A bottle of brown liquid, bowls, and napkins now stood on top. The feeling of dread slithered under my skin, and I turned away.

Looking for Qiyi, I watched them move to a wooden box suspended on the wall, to another under the counter, as they waved me over.

“Pick the set you like.”

Utensils lay in small cubbies, and I recognized a few patterns I had processed in the past. There was one in particular that had caught my attention, and I sifted through until I had found the matching set. When I did, the huffs escaped from Qiyi.

“I guess you like green the best?”

I looked at the violet set in their hands, the ones they had mentioned before. The flowers sparkled in the middle, like Qiyi’s eyes when they made those little huffs.

“I like violet too.”

“Want to use these then?”

“No, because you like violet.”

Qiyi and Mama stared at me. Then Mama cleared her throat and transferred the pot to the table.

“Come eat, you two.”

I moved to the table and sat. From the window, a beam of sun fell onto the tabletop, and I realized that it was not eight in the morning or evening. Perhaps they stored some gelatinous blocks to eat during the day.

Except, when they started to gather long floppy strings onto their chopsticks and swallow them, I knew that that could not be the case.

“Help yourself,” Qiyi said, pushing my designated bowl towards me.

I tried mimicking the way they held their chopsticks, but years of making the chopsticks didn’t teach me how to hold them. Setting them down, I dipped my spoon in and watched the strings slide back into the brown water.

“Use your chopsticks to grab the noodles and the spoon for soup.”

So they were called noodles and soup.

“I don’t know how to use them.”

Mama’s eyebrows raised; Qiyi’s eyes widened.

“How do you eat when the food is long?”

“The food is never long. It’s a square shape and cool enough to eat with my hands. It appears every morning and evening at eight. Why are we eating when it’s not eight?”

I paused because I hadn’t thought about toning the end of my sentence up, but it happened anyway. Mama’s expression didn’t change, but Qiyi bit her lip.

“Here, I’ll teach you.”

Her hand holding mine felt nice, like a warmth I could get used to. The taste of the noodles and brown water gave sensations I could not describe. Still soft and chewy like the gelatin, but Qiyi said that the different sauces made it taste ‘salty.’ I liked it in the same way that I liked my colors.

My guide started asking me things that should have been obvious—what was work like, did our houses look the same, did I know anybody. The more I answered, the more Qiyi bit her lip. It started dyeing red, like the blood from the meat we processed, so I reached forward to pull her lip from her teeth. Her eyes rounded out, and I felt my own mouth ends twitch up.

“Qiyi, send the dishes away. I will take the worker to the temple.”

Mama got up noisily, her eyes narrowed at me. Letting me have one last bite, Mama took my arm and yanked, a different guide than how Qiyi had been. The dishes disappeared from the table in a flash of blue, and I realized that that was how the gelatin appeared every day.

At the door, I nodded to Qiyi as a goodbye, but they didn’t nod back. Instead, arms wrapped around me and their torso heated mine. And as Mama separated us and started the contraption again, I thought to myself that I liked Qiyi in a different way than how I liked colors and the noodles. After all, Mama seemed angry at me even when I complied, but Qiyi liked to ask me questions.

Once we arrived, Mama told me to get out and ran the contraption away. Another person led me down corridors and told me to sit in another room, taking my mini portal. They seemed like a fellow worker to me. Around fifty people in my familiar solidcolor wear waited here, some in their function garments, some in their uniform.

The worker-guide went into an adjacent room, and from there I overheard the voices that didn’t bother to hush.

“They’re all here, sir.”

“Good. Just use the shock-needle to execute. This had been a spontaneous order when the CEO, fortune to him, decided to build a new amusement park, so no watch parties. According to calculations, we’ll offset the environmental costs with this extra picking of workers. Damn good-for-nothings. Good thing the Powerful CEO came up with this new system after the Great Disaster. As he says, ‘Subtract the liabilities to boost benefits.’”

“Indeed. Was the amusement park breaking down?”

“No, too boring.”

Workers started to be taken away, dread gripped my skin as a worker-guide grabbed my arm, and I wondered if I should still be safe rather than sorry.

April 23, 2021 21:56

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RBE | We made a writing app for you (photo) | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

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