The Cost of Comfort || Dan Lenois

The electronic chime of the alarm clock sounded from within Eileen’s cranial implant. “Good morning!” Andrew informed her in a bubbly tone. His early-morning enthusiasm never quite gelled with her outlook. But it was to be expected, given his programming. Eileen groaned with discomfort, rolling out of bed. She found she had been laying on her stomach again, which definitely didn’t sit well with the cramps. The overhead kitchen lighting flicked on. 

“What’s been happening?” she inquired, not particularly caring about the answer. It was a ritual, a question-and-answer game like children might play. She squinted as her eyes adjusted to the virtual bombardment of status updates that flashed in rapid succession in front of her eyes. At times it almost appeared as if they were substantial, rather than an outpouring from her implant. A glance next to her at the otherwise empty bed informed her that Damian had already left for work. She didn’t even recall him leaving. It was only then that the night’s events remerged to the fore of her mind. Eileen rolled over, reluctant to start the day.

A flick of her eye expanded a weather report, where the forecaster, an AI-powered hologram, informed her: “. . .experiencing another low today, with temperatures dropping to a brisk eighty-two degrees, so be sure to dress warmly if you’re planning to be out and about.” Eileen resisted the temptation to flop back onto her bed. Winter definitely had its ups and downs. She observed that Andrew, likely sensing this, had deliberately begun drawing open the artificial blinds that blacked out the luminescent neon gleams and flashes ever-present throughout the middle and upper levels of the city.

Eileen gazed out at the city of Portum. It was hard to believe that its history encompassed little more than two centuries, precipitating the collapse by merely a single generation. Only a dozen-odd similar settlements existed in the Western Union, the reformation of several individual surviving territories previously held together under the banner of the United States. A low-quality rendition of what had once been the nation’s anthem played in her mind, as images from its glory days, exaggerated with countless filters and accentuating animations, played vividly, like some kind of perverse memorial. 

It was only then that she realized it was Unity Day. It was on this very day, all those years ago, that Portum had opened its doors, as the wider world outside began its long spiral into chaos and destruction. If one even took the briefest look at what might be outside the barriers that protected the city, they would likely see an image quite different than that which lay inside. Snapping herself out of her reverie, she flashed a brief mental middle finger at Andrew, who quickly halted the sounds and sights with petulant reluctance.

Eileen heard the sound of the shower being activated. Whether Andrew’s adherence to the daily schedule at this point was out of mere automated compliance, or for the more personal reason of smugly reasserting control over nearly every aspect of her life, she couldn’t be sure. As she stripped and hopped into the perfectly-regulated water pressure and temperature her shower preferences dictated, Andrew fed her the remainder of the high-priority notifications. The lower priority ones, of which there were always hundreds, she decided could wait. 

Her government-provided daily basic income deposit had arrived as expected, sponsored today by T.Q Accessories, with a five-percent-off coupon to all citizens who used said funds at one of their digital storefronts, with one-hour-or-less free home delivery guaranteed. She quickly deleted the advertisement with a diagonal flick of her eyes, dragging it to the delete button where it disappeared with a happy chirping noise.

A set of warm, fresh, chestnut-colored towels presented themselves, neatly folded, from a rack emerging from a hidden wall compartment as she stepped out of the shower. Taking one, she dried herself off. As she did, the shower folded itself back into the bottom of the opposing wall, as the space above it jutted forward and opened, revealing her and Damian’s shared wardrobe. Most of her wardrobe comprised only the slightest variations of the same exact work uniform. Its unassuming, stark white coloring often made her feel like a blank page in someone else’s book. 

Returning to the main room, which served as both bedroom and kitchen, she noted that a delivery box had arrived. She hadn’t even heard it arrive. Eileen walked over. The box did a quick optical scan and slid open with a quiet, metallic hiss. She rolled her eyes with mild irritation as she found Andrew had taken the liberty of ordering sanitary products for her, in accordance with her past purchasing preferences. Eileen had assumed she had disabled Andrew’s biomedical scans, but perhaps he had enabled it again. While useful in normal times, the uninterrupted necessity of said products was a painful reminder of the present reality.

Straightening her collar, she walked toward the front door of the apartment, which Andrew had already perfunctorily opened for her. Eileen heard a snikt sound as her optical filters automatically adjusted to public mode. She braced herself, and stepped outside. The door slid smoothly shut once again, merging itself into the otherwise uniform wall. That was one of the nice things about the exquisitely efficient design. One had no fear of robbery because no one ever had direct visibility of, let alone access to, any door other than their own. Everything you needed to know was filtered through to you.

The commute to work was never a particularly long one, but it was a tedious one. Eileen pushed her way through the crowd. Despite having grown up in it her entire life, she had never grown entirely accustomed to the mere scale of Portum. Its populace extended to nearly a hundred million citizens. Its rounded design encompassed only a slighter broader radius than most major cities in centuries past. It was the vertical height and depth of the city that allowed it to stand as one of the last bastions in which to safeguard humankind. It took her only a few minutes to make her way to one of the transport landings. It wasn’t long before she got into a taxi, and the propellers jettisoned her off the platform and began to ascend through the densely packed aerial traffic.

Eileen looked out the grimy window and saw a distant public screen, displaying footage of one of the regional councilors at a ribbon-cutting event. The red-cheeked man, whose poorly applied mascara was melting off his face in whitish tears, was proudly revealing the addition of a new housing district, set in the lower levels, which had been in development for several years. Eileen had never dared to personally descend to the lowest levels, but she had been taught as a child that the subterranean excavation had extended to just over seven miles before the city’s architects had halted further exploration, citing stability concerns. Having tapped out any further subterranean vertical opportunities over a century ago, horizontal opportunities became the next priority. The future didn’t come into being by itself. You had to create it first.

Her mind flashed back to the argument she and Damian had the night before last. Andrew had, on request, done an intensive biomedical scan, and confirmed the results had not been successful. 

“Surely, there has to be some alternative. Something we could’ve done differently. It’s just a matter of time, it has to be,” he said agitatedly, smacking his hand against his knee as he leaned over the edge of their bed. Eileen leaned forward and wrapped her arms around his neck.

“We just keep trying. We still have time,” she said comfortingly, resting her head over his shoulder. 

“Yes, but not enough!” Damian flashed back heatedly before glancing back at her, and lowering his head. “I’m sorry. It was an ugly thought. I didn’t mean it.” 

He put his hand over hers, their rings touching, as he leaned back against her. 

“Five years,” he observed, looking at the two overlapping rings. “I made you a promise–”, he began. 

“More than one,” Eileen interjected with a quiet laugh. 

“More than one,” he conceded with a slight smile, “but having a family, a place to belong,” he gestured vaguely at the apartment around them, “none of it really turned out as we thought it would, no? The one thing that mattered most to us, to you, and I can’t deliver.” He shook his head in disgust. 

“It was never the most important thing,” Eileen responded firmly. He turned back to her with appreciation and affection clearly written in his eyes.

Eileen stirred herself from her recollections as the taxi smoothly finished its gliding descent into the Vertraut district. Positioning itself inches off the nearest landing platform, the automated vehicle came to a halt, and Eileen stepped out, breathing in the perfumed air. Vertraut stood as something of a median level between the upper levels and the lower, where the two polar opposite economic classes could, at least in theory, intermingle. Each district had its own theme and purpose. Vertraut’s was self-evident: Desire. In better times, the word might’ve had some negative and specific connotations, she knew. But everything in this world came with a price tag. Hope, ambition, even love. Vertraut was merely upfront about it. 

She saw the gleaming, expansive building ahead. As the largest by far in the district, it was hard to miss. That, and the fact it stood at the end of the largest and busiest street, its razor-sharp triangular design jutting out so as to make it impossible to miss. In giant, shimmering, projected lettering stood Echo, whose slogan, “Visions of Perfection”, Eileen had to admit was a little too on-the-nose for her liking. Passing through the crowds of customers flitting whimsically in and out of different commercial buildings, Eileen walked toward the translucent-colored entrance, which slid smoothly open to admit her.

Her portion of the line wasn’t too bad today, she had to admit. Only a few hundred for her to process. Since bookings were exclusively in advance, it shrunk the otherwise potentially unbearable lines into something far more manageable. She stepped into her cubicle as Andrew replaced her normal visual overlay with a nearly-overwhelming number of cameras, sliders, buttons, and other controls. Eileen remembered well what her boss Ryan had told her on her first day.

Ryan had been leaning on his walking cane. An older man, easily in his late seventies, there was still a remarkable sense of boyish enthusiasm that shone through the wrinkled face, curtained by a long net of bushy white hair that stuck out in clumps at odd angles. While undeniably wealthy as CEO of the company, he stubbornly refused to treat his right leg, which suffered from some sort of muscle weakness, choosing instead to lean on a simple hand-carved walking cane. 

“What do you imagine is your job here?” Ryan asked her, turning toward her as he leaned against his cane. 

“To process admissions, facilitate data, and extrapolate relevant information from machine learning for repackaging”, she responded promptly, citing a line she had memorized from the orientation. Ryan stamped his cane with mild agitation. 

“Technically, you’re right, but in reality, it’s a lot simpler than that.” He gestured around them at the other workers staring at screens, upon which one could see not only their clients laying on comfortable beds in isolated, uniformly-designed rooms, but also the workings of their minds, altered through outside interference. 

“Our purpose, our goal, is to become storytellers. People come to us, give us their memories, their thoughts, their desires, everything that comes to mind. Our goal is to filter out the fluff, sort through bits and pieces, add in a bit of extra seasoning on our end, and serve them up a dreamy dish of their own making. We’re storytellers. Your job is to tell a good story. There’s a market in happily-ever-afters, and you’re about to tap into it.” He resumed stumping energetically along the corridor. Even three years later, Eileen still vividly remembered struggling to take in the implications of what he had said.

Reconnecting family members with deceased loved ones gradually had become her particular area of expertise. Mothers, fathers, siblings, children, their faces could each be extracted with only minimal effort. Once the construct was established from a combination of scattered memories, like fitting individual pieces to form a completed puzzle, taking the rendered three-dimensional model and manipulating it was child’s play. Given the complexity of the AI software, all Eileen had to do was generally direct and supervise the flow of events using a series of sliders and keyboard inputs projected into her lenses. For the entire day, she did nothing else. For some, the necessary repetition of the same minimal manual actions might be mind-numbing. For her, it was akin to watching a series of mildly interesting interactive films of varying lengths, all of which she had some measure of control over.

Finally, the day was over. The last of her clients, along with those of everyone else’s, paraded out of the building. Andrew seamlessly signed out her time clock as she got to her feet. Just as Eileen stood to leave her station, she had an idea. Ordering Andrew to momentarily take control of her workstation, as she would on other occasions when she needed to step away, she walked purposefully through the door of one of the individual client compartments that she normally supervised. While personal use of the systems was never directly disallowed, most of her coworkers didn’t choose to make use of them outside of work hours. Eileen knew firsthand the drain brought on by the constant daily exposure to others’ memories and sensations. Yet, there was still a certain appeal nevertheless.

No sooner had Eileen laid back on the comfortable-yet-awkward bed in the center of the otherwise sparse white room, the room and all other surroundings dissolved in a single blink of her eyes. She found herself lying in a hospital bed. Leaning forward in a seat next to her, a lack of sleep etched clearly around his eyes, was Damian. He smiled. 

“I thought you were going to sleep for a bit,” he said softly, “I was kind of hoping for it, if we’re being honest,” he continued lightly, “I figured I might finally have a chance to hold her for a bit.” Eileen looked down in surprise at the small infant clutched in her arms protectively. 

Damian got up and kneeled next to the bed, putting one arm around Eileen, and one on the baby. Their baby. “Momma, meet Maeve.” He looked at Eileen, pride and love shining through the outwardly stoic disposition. Turning to their daughter, he added: “Maeve, meet momma.” He kissed Eileen’s cheek, and for a time, they stayed like that. Eileen could later describe every aspect of that moment. 

After an indescribably happy period of time, the dream faded, and Eileen found herself back in the empty white room. She looked down to find her arms still intertwined, holding a bundle that had ceased to exist. Eileen felt a single tear well up in the corner of her left eye. With a quick chaste effort, she freed it from its constraints as she regained her composure. She got to her feet and made toward the door. As it slid smoothly open and she stepped through it, she paused to glance back at the room, and for only an instant, so quick she later was uncertain whether she had imagined it, she saw that final image of her, Damian, and Maeve in the hospital, this time from an outsider’s perspective, as if she was a spectator peeping in through a window. Then the afterimage, if that’s what it was, disappeared, as the automated door closed smartly in her face.

A local Connecticut resident, Daniel Lenois is a prolific entertainment writer, freelancing for a number of gaming and technology websites. A vocal Autism Awareness advocate, he has appeared as a guest speaker on dozens panels at local high schools and universities, including the University of Rhode Island, and has been interviewed by outlets including Fox 61 and NPR. Daniel enjoys creative writing, and spending time with his family and cat.


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