December 2048, a city in the Northern Hemisphere
“Eeek! You’re bleeding, Jonathan!” she said, tottering into the living room, fumbling the door shut against the chill and gloom.
No No NO there was blood dripping down both his wrists. The knife was still quivering gently, stuck in the wood of the rocking chair’s bottom.
“You promised,” she muttered, bandaging the limp wrists and spraying on the Liquid Band-Aid, “that you wouldn’t off yourself when I wasn’t around.”
Two well-deserved slaps had brought him round soon enough.
“I’m sorry, Rashi,” said Jonathan, eyelids half closed. He tried to shrug and gave up, wedged shrunken into the chair.
“I was…. Honestly, what else was I to do…”
Rashi looked into the distance. The winter gale hissed at the dark window, then abruptly died down.
“Yeah, I know,” she said, heavily. “I go out for my first walk in ages, wearing the thick plastic raincoat, my feet are blue with the chill and Mrs Simla trills at me — ‘What darling weather it is, my dear!’ I wanted to claw her face off, the bitch.”
“Was she wearing a disco?” asked Jonathan, still slumped in his chair, like always.
“Of course. That’s what I meant, Jon. Claw her face off, eww,” said Rashi, falling into her chair, also facing the door, next to her husband’s.
Almost involuntarily, her eyes flicked over to the two dusty disco masks on the table, shoved against the wall, nearly covered by the piles of scorched-looking paper flung there after Jonathan’s abortive attempt to interest himself in charcoal sketching. She had long given up trying to find a hobby for herself. Hobbies in the general population were all but replaced by the disco version, better in almost every aspect.
The name came from “like having your own private discotheque”, a breathless sentence in one of the earliest reviews of the virtual reality tech. Disco masks weren’t virtual reality, not quite. You could still move around in the real world, but your perceptions were altered. A biting wind might feel like a cooling breeze, the silence of the city was replaced by whatever music the software thought you liked best at the moment, and the thin, sharp electrodes in the innermost layer, touching the skin of your face, told the circuitry what kind of surroundings your neurons wanted to feel. It never itched, of course. Soon you’d stop noticing it ever existed. The most important effect, of course, was that you couldn’t feel bored or depressed. Something new popped up in front of you every thirty seconds if necessary, and your dopamine levels were carefully adjusted by the electrodes.
They were banned in orbit, where every sense needed to be on high alert. On Earth, however, they were perfectly legal and almost universally worn. Why wouldn’t you? After all, people who had taken off and damaged their discos in remote areas had ‘succumbed to ennui’, as the monthly obit newsflash put it.
Without disco, what was there to do? There were no jobs to have on Earth, not that anyone wanted one. A hobby? One got bored, of course. She pictured Maz, dear son, walking in, a year from now, to two slowly decomposing bodies in identical rocking chairs and red wrists…She shuddered. But Jonathan had already tried to kill himself twice. She herself wobbled frantically on the edge of that precipice. Could they endure that long?
“Stop looking at those things,” said Jonathan, vaguely circling his finger in the direction of the table. He had drawn circles, and far more exotic shapes, as a Pre-Millennium artist, before disco made everyone into a critic who found their own scribbles the most fantastic art in the universe. Now his work lay scrunched on the table. Nobody cared. They could all do better themselves.
“It’s a year before Maz gets back from his asteroid mission,” said Rashi. “I know they have the regen medicine, but still, what if a pirate miner gets a lucky shot into his brain? I warned him never to take off that ridiculous helmet of his. But he likes the danger. What did he say last time? ‘the adrenaline rush of chasing matter thieves halfway across geosync orbit’ ? But does it have to be him? Can’t somebody else keep the economy running?”
Rashi tossed her raincoat vaguely at the table. It hit the floor with a slight squelch. She collapsed back into the chair, her old bones tired from the short walk, plodding through the mud.
“You know, Jon, I could manage when Mrs Simla at least didn’t wear disco and I could talk to her sometimes. Now…. there’s nothing to do at all… If you’d gone out for that walk, I might have been the one playing with the knife.”
“So what do you want to do? Give up? Say goodbye to the real world, only somewhat less permanently than I tried, and put on a disco? Live in a castle in the air?”
“It’s a lot better than life down here.”
“Pah. You’re right about that. I don’t have a single friend left who wouldn’t smile at me beatifically. If they saw me at all.”
“At least they’re smiling. When was the last time you smiled?”
“You think those fake smiles count? Mrs Simla thought it was her birthday again last week. Said to thank you for the beautiful cake. She grinned happily at me while I told her you haven’t baked in years.”
“So if it’s not connected to something in the real world it’s not meaningful? What about happy dreams?”
“The smile on your face when you wake up counts. Not the ones before. It’s only a dream if you can wake up from it. Otherwise it’s a nightmare.”
“I don’t know, Jon. I know it’s addictive. I know the joy isn’t real. But it’s been a while since I’ve experienced real joy. I think I might have forgotten how to tell the difference.”
“If- no, no when Maz comes back you’ll tell the difference all right. If you’re awake and alert to see him walk through that door.”
“That’s the only reason I haven’t used that knife. But Jon, that’s a year away. Dunno if I can hold out for a year- without disco.”
“And when he comes home to see us grinning and staring past his face like zombies?”
“We would take it off then!” said Rashi, sitting up straight.
“What, like Salvator, that guy on the flash who dropped his disco overboard while on a ship and decided the only true excitement in life was swimming with the sharkies?”
“Oh no, it’s really juggling with the knifies, of course,” snapped Rashi.
Jonathan inhaled and said nothing.
It started to drizzle. Small raindrops rolled lethargically down the window pane and pooled on the icy frame.
The rocking-chair creaked as Jonathan sat up with effort.
“Gimme that disco.”
“I swear to you, Rashi, the minute Maz walks through that door, that thing is off my face and in the bin.”
Rashi picked up the discos, shuffled over, pecked Jonathan on the cheek and passed him a disco mask.
“Ready, darling? One year. And then we won’t use it, ever again.”
She slipped hers on.
Aaaaaah. Mrs Simla was right. It really was darling weather. The window opened and a perfect summer breeze swirled around the room. Rashi wriggled her toes with delight. Maz didn’t know what he was missing. Anyway, it was time to think about that superb tapestry on the wall. When had she gotten so good at embroidery?
Perhaps she would start again. Why had she ever dropped it? Such fun…..
…..Rashi was playing chess against Magnus Carlson, world champion since 2036. And losing. Or so he thought. She smirked, tapping a rook against her teeth. Tap. Taptap. A bit boring, playing Carlsen. She’d be world champion next, of course. Tap. Taptap. Tappity-tap tap tappitytap tap tap. Wait. Tap taptap tappitytap?
Carlson disappeared. Something stirred at the back of Rashi’s mind. I know that sound….
Yes! That’s Maz! Mazmazmaz! Maz is back! She ripped the odd plastic off her face and spun out of her chair. Across the room was a door. Almost tripping over her feet she yanked it open. Maz stood, silhouetted in the bright sunlight.
Rashi sighed, joy soaking into her bones deeper than ever before. Maz is here.
Maz, alive-and-safe Maz, fell into her arms. The perfect summer breeze gently swirled the door shut.