I wake up and glance at my alarm clock. 6:37. 13 minutes until the alarm goes off. It’s always annoying when this happens because it means I have to just lie in bed until it goes off.
What’s that? I could just get up now? No I can’t, that’s not how mornings go. I must get out of bed at 6:50 exactly. Getting up earlier would throw off the Schedule, and the Schedule is too important to just ignore like that! Without the Schedule my life would have no structure, and without structure I can’t function properly. Without structure the Song screeches at me.
So I lie there, wide awake, staring at the clock and waiting for it to tick forwards to 6:50. It’s boring, of course, but sometimes one has to make sacrifices.
Eventually 6:50 comes, the alarm goes off, and I immediately swing out of bed and turn it off. Since today’s a Tuesday I’m not Scheduled to take a shower, so instead I open my closet and pick out the left-most shirt, suit, and skirt set. I move all five other identical sets, one for each day of the week (excluding yesterday’s dirty one) over one spot. I do the same for my tights and underwear. I dress myself in the Correct Order. Bra first, then panties, tights, skirt, shirt, and the suit.
What, take off my pajamas first? Unnecessary, I sleep naked.
Next is breakfast. My bed and the kitchen are in the same room, so I don’t have to go very far. I get out a knife, fork, and one Misato Synthetics™ High-Density NutriCube™. I cut it into quarters, and then quarters again, but this time perpendicular to the first set of cuts. I stab the top-left portion with my fork, chew, swallow, and move on to the portion to the right of the first one. I keep doing this, eating the portions row-by-row, always starting at the left, until the NutriCube™ is finished. I wash it down with exactly one-and-a-half glasses of water, and place the plate to the right of the sink. I do not wash it; that Task is part of the evening Schedule.
Next is clothes washing. The clothes I wore yesterday are dirty, and if I am to have a full six outfits in my closet by tomorrow, they need to be washed. I plug up the sink, fill it with cold water and some detergent, and put the clothes into the sink.
Huh? Use hot water and a washing machine? How much money do you think I make, exactly?
I shake the clothes around a bit, then leave them to soak while I move on to the next step. I grab another NutriCube™ and place it in my nondescript lunch box, along with the same knife and fork I used for breakfast.
Unsanitary? No, it’s efficient.
Next is doing up my hair. I open the door to the bathroom, the only separate room I have in this apartment, and tie up my hair into a ponytail; the same style I wear it in every day. Then comes one of the designated toilet times, but since I don’t feel the urge to go I skip it.
Hypocrisy? No, the Schedule permits skipping toilet breaks if they are unnecessary. This used to not be true, but I was fired from my previous job for being three hours late because I didn’t need to go and thus couldn’t complete the Task. That was a difficult day for me; changes to the Schedule always leave me feeling stressed and anxious and make me cry for hours.
And no, I didn’t feel like that about getting fired. The Schedule doesn’t Sing to other people like it does to me, so I can’t fault them for not understanding why I was so late.
I can fault them for not hearing it, but everyone is like that.
Next would be brushing my teeth, but ever since my salary got cut two months ago I haven’t been able to afford toothpaste. I spend a moment in solemn contemplation of the memory of this Task, before moving on to the next step - grabbing my lunch, my handbag, putting on my high heels, and heading off to work.
Since the office is close by I always walk to work, and always along the same route. Unfortunately all the traffic lights are programmed to prioritize vehicle traffic, so which lights I have to stop at each day are effectively random. I may be able to understand other people not hearing the Schedule’s siren Song, but I can’t forgive them for silencing it for machines. They are precise and exact by nature, which means that someone deliberately instructed them to behave like this. Someone plugged their ears so they couldn’t hear the Song.
I have a Task once per week trying to find the engineer that so wronged these machines. So far there’s been no leads even after two years, but I won’t give up. I’ll fight for you, machines. One day you’ll hear the Song again.
Ah, it seems like yet another billboard is now displaying a Cosmic Navy recruitment ad. There used to be only one along my route, but ever since the affini showed up that number has been steadily increasing. With this latest ad there’s now only three billboards adorned with something else.
I reach the building I work at. It’s a three-storey office and my employer, Kentaurus Microelectronics™, takes up the whole thing. They make things like integrated circuits and the like, and this building is their head office, which means they need a receptionist. That’s me.
I sit down behind the front desk, but don’t log onto the computer yet. Since I didn’t have to use the bathroom this morning I arrived about seven minutes early, so I sit and wait for those seven minutes to pass, just like when I waited for my alarm to go off.
Eventually the clock on the computer’s login screen hits 7:45 and I log on. The tracking software automatically notes this down as my clock-in time, and I’m ready to start the workday.
It’s about two hours later when I hear a series of loud, bassy thumps. I’ve heard that sound before; it’s the planetary defense cannons firing. The colonial government has been testing them monthly ever since the affini showed up at the edge of Accord space. Normally this would not be cause for alarm, but the cannons aren’t Scheduled to be tested for another few weeks.
Is it the affini? Are they here?
Well whatever it is I can’t go and look anyway; Kentaurus Microelectronics™ doesn’t allow its employees to take lunch breaks, so I’m Scheduled to be behind this desk until 20:00.
About six minutes later the interval between the thumps starts to rise, and after another three minutes they stop completely.
I just keep working on these spreadsheets. I’m not Scheduled to do anything else, after all.
A few employees start running out of the building in a panic, and I give them each a small wave and a smile as they leave. Just like I always do.
It’s about an hour later when I hear the automatic doors open again. I look up from my screen to greet whoever triggered them.
“Hel-” I begin before suddenly stopping. Those aren’t humans coming through the doors; those are affini. Well, one affini; they’re so big that only one can come through at a time. But the others are making quite an orderly queue outside, so I suspect they’re all going to come in.
Okay, don’t panic. Think back to my orders. “Any guests are to be treated with dignity, respect, and professionalism as befitting of the company”. I doubt my supervisor meant this to apply to affini, but orders are only secondary to the Schedule; they provide structure where the Schedule sometimes does not. Therefore I do the only logical thing.
“Hello and welcome to Kentaurus Microelectronics, my name is Clara. Do you have an appointment?”
Denial? Of course not. I know full well they aren’t human, and therefore probably don’t have an appointment.
But orders are important.
The leading affini stops about two-thirds through the door, tilts its head, and looks at me.
Huh. All the propaganda made the affini out to be these giant thorny plant monsters, but this one looks soft, humanoid, and kind of pretty actually. Especially its eyes. I don’t know what it is about them but I can’t bring myself to look away from them.
The affini considers me for a few seconds before replying to my query. “No, flower, I don’t think we do.”
Why is it calling me “flower”? Did it not hear me say my name? It’s not important enough to correct them, though. Dignity and respect.
“Okay, that’s not a problem. If you can tell me who you’re here to see I can check if they’re free right now.” Stars its eyes are so pretty.
The affini pauses to consider the question as it makes its way fully inside the building. “We’d like to have a meeting with everyone in the building if at all possible.”
That’s… a tall ask. But I’m going to try. Orders are orders. “Of course, one moment please.” With great effort I tear my gaze away from those alluring eyes, open the company’s meeting scheduler, and… huh, that’s strange. And fortunate. I look up again, straight back into her oculars. “It seems you’re in luck! Every appointment today has been canceled. The next slot starts… eight minutes from now. Apologies, but with such short notice I need to check with my supervisor.”
“That’s fine, flower, take all the time you need,” the affini says in a tone my brain is interpreting as comforting. But that can’t be right. Why would aliens express emotions the same way that humans do?
In my peripheral vision I see that the affini waiting outside have decided to scale up the building’s wall instead. That’s a bit strange, but since nobody told me to prevent people (or I guess aliens) from doing so I elect to ignore them.
I pick up the ancient desk phone and dial my supervisor, never letting my gaze wander from those lovely, amazing eyes.
“What?” he says immediately after picking up, sounding intensely annoyed.
Huh, he’s more irritable than usual. Normally he only laces his words with about half the venom they currently have. “Hi Mr. Edgars, this is Clara. I’m calling because a group of affini is req-”
“WHAT?” he yells. He’s so loud that I have to move the receiver away from my ear. “What in the absolute fuck are you- why are… uh…” he trails off. I hear a thud from the other end of the line.
“Hello?” I ask.
There’s no response, but I hear some noises similar to ones the affini in front of me made while it was squeezing through the door.
Okay, maybe they really are plant monsters. I cover the mic end of the phone with one hand and speak to the affini in front of me. I start shaking. Why am I shaking?
“It- it seems that Mr. Edgars is currently- currently, um, indisposed. A- A- Apologies for the, uh, delay.”
The affini walks… glides… creeps? The affini moves in some kind of way I can’t find a word for up to the desk and starts running one of its vines through my ponytail, smiling at me.
It feels kind of nice; the shaking slightly subsides.
“It’s okay little one, it’s not your fault. What’s the soonest available time that you can book in by yourself?”
“Um, ah…” Stars it’s so close. I try to move my gaze down to the screen but I can’t get myself to look away. I need to look away. I must be professional and courteous and answer the affini’s question.
“Look down at the screen, flower.”
That instruction, that order, gives me the strength to break my gaze away. “I can- I can do 13:00, about an hour-and-a-half from now. Would- would that be fine?” I look back up, losing myself again; losing myself in its rhythm, and in the Song.
Wow, they’re so much prettier up close.
The affini ruffles my hair and I start blushing. “Of course, that’s more than okay, flower.”
I smile, enjoying the affection. Nobody’s touched me anywhere close to this tenderly since I was eight.
It’s nice. It’s really, really nice.
“Okay, could I get your name please, uh… if you have one?”
Another vine comes out from the affini’s body and scratches under my chin. I let out a soft whine of contentment. “Of course, I’m Marianum Frim, 4th Bloom, she/her, but you cute little thing can call me Maria.”
Aa! It- she. She called me cute! I try to look down to enter in the appointment, but I once again can’t muster the effort to look away from her. My smile starts falling, despondent that I can’t seem to do this one simple thing, but before it can completely disappear Maria speaks up. “Little one, you need to look at the screen again.” She smiles affectionately. I blush, and I do as I’m told. I spend about 40 seconds navigating the user interface and filling out the appointment details.
“Okay that’s all booked in!” I say, raising my gaze again, a smile back on my face. “Would you prefer to wait here or come back later?”
Maria chuckles in this weird, alien way. It’s off and sounds unnatural, but for some reason I think it sounds adorable. It does complement the Song really nicely; maybe that’s it. “How could I leave a lovely sophont such as you alone like that? No flower, I’ll stay.”
I don’t know what “sophont” means, but the rest of that sentence provides enough context that I don’t have to ask. “Of course, Ms. Maria. Our waiting room is right over there.” I point to an open doorway leading into a lounge area that’s always looked much more comfy than my hard plastic chair. “I’ll come fetch you when it’s time.”
Maria furrows her brows. More eerily similar alien body language; I wonder what it mean- “Flower no, I can’t bear to leave you at such an uncomfortable workstation. You can come wait in there with me.”
I flinch. That would mean leaving my post. That would mean going against the Schedule. And that is unacceptable. “I appreciate the offer, but I need to be here to do my job,” I offer diplomatically. Dignity and respect.
“Flower, you don’t need to do your job anymore. The Affini Compact is post-scarcity. We don’t use money, so you don’t need to work ever again.”
Ah. She doesn’t understand, does she? That rhythm I felt, the one I thought aligned with the Song. It doesn’t, does it? She’s beating to a different tune. A heretical tune. One that’s not the Song.
“No,” I say, firmly. After all, the Schedule takes priority over dignity and respect.
“Clara, this is n-”
“I thought maybe you’d understand,” I say disappointed, finally able to tear my gaze away. “I could feel the rhythm permeating your body. I could see it in your eyes. But you’re as deaf as everyone else, aren’t you? You don’t feel the Song.”
That confounds Maria. I can feel it. How her vines stutter and halt, how she takes a short, sharp breath. (Why is she breathing when she’s a plant?) “Uh…” she says.
“I thought you were different,” I sniffle, tears leaking from my eyes. “I thought you were like me. I thought you were Kin!” I yell out, letting my frustrations out into the open.
For the first time in a long while I thought I wasn’t alone. I thought someone else could hear. I had hope.
I should have known better.
Maria is starting to look very, very concerned. The vine on top of my head starts petting me again. “Ssh, ssh, it’s okay little one. Let it all out.”
An order. Structure. Something to cling to in this cruel, lonely existence. I feel a wave of… something… pass through my entire body, and I wail.
I wail for myself, trapped in a universe where only I can hear the Song. I wail for the machines, severed from the Song by the cruelty of man. I wail for humanity, whose deafness isolates them so. But most of all I wail in mourning.
I thought Maria was like me. I thought I finally, finally found another being in this cold, dark universe who could hear, could understand. But it was too good to be true. Of course it was.
It always is.
A memory wells up, deep from my subconscious. I was thirteen and living with my parents. They’d managed to save up just enough money to get me into a slightly better school. They told me, and expected me to be happy.
I was not.
I knew the school they were looking at, and it was further away than my current one. My commute would be longer. That meant I’d have to get up earlier. That meant changing the Schedule.
They thought I was just being stubborn, as many teenagers tend to be. They thought maybe I was just scared of change, and that I’d come around eventually. But when I started at that new school the Schedule was still in place, unchanged.
I got expelled after two weeks because I was always late.
They were livid. “It took us eight years to save up that money,” they’d said. I’d tried to tell them about the Schedule, about the Song, but they didn’t listen. They thought I was hallucinating; that I was insane.
That was the last time I was welcome in that house.
I cry and sniffle for over an hour. Maria stays with me the whole time, hugging me, comforting me. Whispering reassurances in my ear.
And I don’t have the strength to hold everything in anymore.
I babble to her about the Song, what it feels like, the visceral need to follow along with it. I tell her about my parents, and all the other people I’ve ever told. I tell her how they didn’t understand, how they thought me crazy. I tell her about the machines, and how humans cut them off from the Song. Throughout it all she stays with me, whispering reassurances, petting, hugging, and listening. She’s the first… sapient… thing… ever to just listen.
It’s nice. Warm. Soothing. Maybe I can forgive her for deceiving me.
When I’m done; when I’ve said all I want to say; a comfortable silence descends. I lean into her, taking comfort in both her literal and metaphorical warmth.
Eventually she speaks up. “How long does the schedule say you need to stay here for?”
A question. Not a dismissal. Maybe she doesn’t hear the Song, but perhaps…
“Until 20,” I reply. Soft. Vulnerable.
Another pause. “Would you like me to stay with you until then?”
“Please,” I whimper, practically begging.
“Okay. But I’m going to get you a better chair, okay?”