The Commuter

by: Paul Schofield ((Header art is one of Adam Martinakis’ stunning digital sculptures.))

A longing for a connection in a world where technology increasingly isolates…

“Good morning David.”

The mechanized female voice awoke David from his slumber. He sat upright, stiffly, and rubbed his eyes. He glanced over at his wife Laura’s sleeping bulge under the covers, and then picked up the e-pen from the bedside table. On the back of his left hand he wrote: “I dreamed of her again.” The letters illuminated in orange across his skin. David used the e-pen to click on the icon that appeared when he had finished writing, and saved the file in the folder named “Dreams.” The letters on his hand quickly dissolved and David got out of bed and stretched, before suddenly grabbing the area on his pajama trousers around his groin. He patted them, checking for dampness, but fortunately the material was dry. As he pulled off his pajama bottoms and tossed them towards the laundry chute, he sighed in relief.

Naked, David shuffled into the walk-in shower. He pressed his hands against the tiled wall, then he leaned his forehead upon it. The tiles were cool, and he felt their inconsistent surface under his fingers.

“Shower on. Warm.”

David’s voice was still rough with sleep. The computerized female voice replied.

“Request denied.”

David exhaled, tapping his forehead against the tiles repeatedly.

“Shower on, please. Warm, please.”

Water started to pour out of the shower above him. David hadn’t wanted the behavioral chip installed in the house system, but Laura had insisted on it, saying that if they ever had children, they would have to learn manners. If.

David held his hands under the dispenser attached to the wall.

“Shampoo, please.”

A pleasant smelling gel was deposited into his palms. He washed his hair slowly, his stare hollow and far off, lost in the fog of his thoughts.

David stepped into the dressing room. He moved in front of the sliding doors, and pressed a button. Seven more buttons all appeared, each reading a day of the week. David pressed “Monday” and it turned from red to green before disappearing with the rest. The doors slid open, and his neatly folded clothes appeared, each on an individual hanger – even his underwear and his socks – one hanger for each. David had always considered this a waste, but that was how the system worked. He unhooked his boxers and slid them on.

When he was fully dressed, he appraised himself in the full-length mirror and grimaced. David had always been amazed at how stunningly average he looked, and age was doing him no favors. His first grey hairs had started to appear, and his hairline was receding north at an alarming rate. How had he ever convinced his wife to marry him, let alone love him? David knew their friends thought of them as an odd couple, but he had always shrugged it off with a joke. He always suspected that Laura had ‘settled’ for him.

“David, the time is now 7:30am.”

He glanced up in the direction that the mechanized voice had come from.

“Thank you,” he said.

“You are very welcome,” the voice retorted.

David wondered if the automated house’s HomeKit had a setting where his helper didn’t sound like a such a condescending bitch. He slipped on his shoes, which surprisingly weren’t delivered on a hanger, rather in a neat box, and he shuffled out of the room. He peered into his bedroom once more where Laura was still asleep. Let her sleep, he thought. It wasn’t like she had anything to do today, or any other day for that matter.

David exited his house and stepped onto the walkpath. Sometimes he had to wait for a few minutes to find a free slot as people stood motionless on the moving treadmill that wound its way through the suburb, but luckily today was not one of those days. Suddenly a hoverbus passed by close to the road, so close it caused David to jolt in alarm. Glaring in its direction as it trundled away on its one track journey, his thoughts drifted back to his childhood playing with a racing car set that operated in the same way; where you held the trigger down to determine how fast the car went. He soon grew tired of the race set, as it was ultimately meant to be a duel between two cars next to each other on separate tracks, but for David there was no Player 2. Eventually he kept on forcing the cars to crash off of the tracks until the pins that held each vehicle magnetically to the track bent and snapped off. No longer a worthy distraction, David meticulously put all the pieces of track and its accessories back into its box, and slid it under his bed. He wondered if it was still there.

David removed the e-pen that was clipped to the inside pocket of his suit jacket, and wrote on the back of his hand “News.” The holoscreen appeared in front of him, and the front page of The Daily News loaded up. THOUSANDS DEAD IN TOKYO BOMBING, shouted the headline. David shook his head sadly. He wondered why the Non-Member States didn’t just sign the treaty. He browsed through the other headlines, but nothing grabbed his attention. He scrawled an “X” on his hand with the e-pen, and the holoscreen blinked and disappeared.

David glanced at the man standing beside him on the walkpath. He was tall and handsome. David hated him already. The man was watching erotica on his holoscreen. David looked away, and then peeked back sideways curious to see what was happening onscreen. Two very large men were doing unspeakable things to a young girl. David felt repulsed and aroused at the same time. The man watching the holoscreen started nodding his head rhythmically. David turned away fully this time. Laura hadn’t touched him in months, and the last time was only because she was drunk. The next morning, as he was getting changed, she casually remarked that she found him completely unattractive when he wore his glasses. Then she went back to bed. He had worn contacts ever since.

The walkpath slowed as it neared the station. David and several others stepped off and shuffled like automatons towards the entrance. As David waited patiently for his travelpod, he glimpsed a flash of long red hair in the horde in front of him. He tried to get a better view, but a terribly obese man pushed in front of him. David internally called him a very rude word, and imagined what would happen if he had said it out loud. He pictured several scenarios and conversations, each of which ended with the obese man punching him in the face as everyone around him laughed. As they reached the front of the queue, the obese man lurched towards the next available travelpod, but a red light flashed and the seemingly endless row of pods came to a stop. Undeterred, the obese man tried to step into the pod again but the door closed itself. A guard appeared, and pointed the obese man away. David allowed himself a small smile as he caught the eyes of the red-faced rotund blob. The pods were designed for two people, or a parent and a pushchair, and the man was too large to fit.

With spirits lifted, David entered his travelpod.

“Please state destination.”

This mechanized voice was androgynous and cold. David still preferred it to the one at home.

David gave his destination; the pod sealed shut, and then whooshed away with the others. David stared up, fascinated as always by the mechanical system that shifted the travelpods around. The top of the pod was attached to a set of metal pincers, which merged into one solid rod, and this connected to the grid above. Through the rod and the pincers, the pod could be cooled or heated based on preference, and the door of the pod could be used as a holoscreen. The pod could also be tinted for privacy, but David always liked to see what was happening around him. And, if he was lucky, he might just catch a glimpse of her again.

The grid shifted David’s pod to the relevant platform. When a train arrived, the grid would remove the exiting commuter pods and insert the new ones until full. The train would move on, and before the next station the pods would be ‘shuffled’ to move the exiting pods closest to the doors, and those with longer journeys towards the middle. David remembered his father calling it the greatest invention ever made. He was particularly fond of not having to deal with the body odor of others, or screaming children. Now his father resided in a hospital, and had to deal with both of those things on a daily basis.

David had to travel fourteen stops, which was just long enough to be an inconvenience. He never used the fold-down seat though, preferring to remain standing to improve his view. As the travelpod train arrived at the platform, he glanced around and recognized the usual faces waiting with him in their own pods. There was a remarkably short woman with a shaved head, who despite her size had a fearsome aura. There were the twin brothers who always wore the exact same suits, shirts and ties. They never travelled in the same pod though. One brother would turn on his holoscreen and watch the latest sport news, while the other would use his holoscreen to draw remarkable pictures. David often felt inspired when seeing this, but also a little empty inside. David had no remarkable talents, unless you included being polite and the ability to remain quiet for long periods of time.

As the pods went through their shuffle, David looked around eagerly. This was always the best opportunity to see her. He hadn’t seen her for two days. She had been wearing a smart navy blue dress last time, and had looked immaculate as always. But David loved her red hair more than anything. It just looked so….perfect. He wanted to run his fingers through it. He wanted to smell it. Sometimes he imagined choking on it, and he wasn’t sure why. There was no sign of her this morning though.

David found her fascinating because she didn’t do anything on her commute. She just stood still, always looking down. David had tried several times to catch her eye with sudden movement. He had even developed a wonderful fake sneeze, and one time he had started doing leg stretches until he nearly lost his balance. He was grateful she hadn’t taken that opportunity to look up. She always exited at Station #28. He had no idea what she did or where she worked, and there were a large number of medium to large companies in that area. One day, about three months ago, something came over David as he saw her in the shuffle, and he changed his destination to Station #28. Her pod left the train before his, and by the time he came out of the station she had disappeared. This made David late for work, and he was reprimanded by his manager. She was wearing green that day.

More than anything, he just wanted to know her name. He had conjured up a host of names that he felt suited what she looked like, but somehow none of them seemed right. David wanted her to have a completely unique name, if that was even possible in this day and age, because he felt she was unique. In a sea of monotony and assholes, she was a lighthouse.

David yawned, stretching his arms and circling around for another look. He couldn’t see her. He pointed his fingers out as far as they could go, and exhaled loudly. Fuck it. He tinted his pod, and opened a book on his holoscreen. David had recently come out of a period of reading 17th century poetry, and was now into post-apocalyptic horror. David did like reading, but he couldn’t love it in the way that others did. He had never found one book that blew his mind, or made him cry, or scared him, or made him feel anything. It was just a pleasant way to pass the time. He knew that his failure to commit to the written world in front of him was because of his lack of heroism, of redeeming features, in the real world. How could he relate to the man who saves the world and gets the girl, all while operating heavy machinery? David couldn’t even work the washing machine before the home system was installed. The fictional men in books always knew exactly what to say and when to say it. David would re-live conversations over and over and over in his head, trying to think of something witty and charming that could be used again in case the exact same conversation replayed itself. Which of course, it never did.

At Station #28, David untinted his pod for one final search, but to no avail. Frowning, he returned to his tinted solitude. David read a couple of chapters before his pod was moved out of the train, and he exited at Station #37. It had started raining, and the walkpath was out of service. He wrapped his arms around himself, and marched towards the grey skyscraper where he spent most of his life.

He entered the building at the same time as Larry Stone. Larry worked in a different department, Finance or HR or something, but they had started on the same day and sat next to each other in Orientation. They had been the only two males in the room, and Larry naturally used this as an opportunity to form a masculine bond. They lunched together, Larry doing most of the talking, David doing all of the nodding. Larry made it clear that he was single, and that he would wouldn’t be choosey about any of the females in the Orientation. David wondered if he should have indulged by stating a preference for one female, but by the time he had decided which one he found the most attractive, Larry had changed the subject to his political beliefs, none of which he agreed with.

“Hey, David!”

Larry was his usual jovial self, despite the weather. David smiled at him, as the doors to the elevator opened in front of them. David pressed the buttons for their respective floors. Larry immediately started describing his weekend, even though David hadn’t asked him to. He’d spent Saturday watching speedball and drinking with his buddies, and Sunday eating junk food. Just as he was asking David how his weekend had been, the elevator doors slid open on his floor. He threw his hands up in mock despair, as Larry patted him on the shoulder.

“Go get ‘em, Champ.”

David didn’t know who ‘‘em’” were, or how he was supposed to get them, or what he was the champion of, but he nodded along anyway and walked in an orderly fashion to his cubicle. The door slid open, and immediately closed behind him.

“Good morning, David,” articulated another androgynous voice, one slightly more abrupt than the transport voice. In all his years of study, he had discovered that in the workplace and non-social environments, voices without gender discouraged emotions, whereas in the home they were meant to be reassuring. This voice did indeed inspire an emotion, but one of detest.

“You have fifteen new messages,” it continued.

David sat in his chair, fixed to the floor and unspinnable to remove the element of horseplay, and turned on his work screen. He scrolled through the emails. Seven were related to his current project, but none of them concerned him directly. He read them anyway, and then moved them to the appropriate folder. Five emails were company messages; two meeting requests for quarterly feedback regarding previous projects, one status report on ongoing schemes, one reminder for the mandatory health and safety workshop, and one happily proclaiming that Friday’s bake sale had raised two-hundred and fifty credits. David had donated two credits and eaten more than he would like to admit. His remaining three emails were from an email thread that Larry had included him on with other men in his department. One of them was having an affair with a female colleague, and had described in lurid detail what happened between them during the last fire drill, while others replied with messages of adoration and demanded for photographic or videographic evidence. David hadn’t sent one email in the year-long thread.

As he did every morning, David slumped in his seat and rested his forehead against the stainless steel desk trying to come up with one single inspiring thing to get him through the day. As always, he came up with nothing, and when thinking became worse than the thought of doing work itself, he straightened up and got on with it. David hated his job, but was very good at concealing his detest. He was an Automated Systems Analyst, which sounded fancy enough, but it basically meant that he designed systems for machines to replace humans. One day he imagined he would design the system for the robot that would replace him, and that robot would send witty emails to Larry and his gang of reprobates. That robot would go out for drinks with them to the robot strip club, and would cheat on his robot wife while downing shots of uranium monoxide.

David ventured down to the cafeteria for lunch. Fortunately, there was no sign of Larry. He recognized a few people from previous meetings, but avoided their gaze when they came near to him. David silently devoured his protein-based meal, listened to the pleasantly generic music, and eavesdropped on the conversations of others. He sat until his hour expired, not thinking about anything in particular, and went back to his cubicle.

David hadn’t personalized his cubicle in any way, except for one plant that sat on his desk. It seemed normal to have a plant. He watered it regularly, and trimmed it when it grew too large. There were no flowers, just green leaves. He liked it that way. He switched on The Daily News Channel and let the rolling headlines wash over him. Non-Treaty unrest. Celebrity divorces. Miracle cures. Pet crocodiles. David watched for twenty minutes, and then felt like screaming. So he did.

“David, are you OK?” the automated voice instantly asked.

David slowed his breathing, and then told the sexless voice that he was fine. He turned the news off, and worked in silence for the rest of the afternoon. He messaged his supervisor with the good news, that human sewage workers could be replaced some time within the next twelve months. David felt sick, and turned off his work screen.

“Thank you, David. See you tomorrow,” his boss coldly stated.

David extended his middle finger to the speaker from which the voice emanated. He marched to the elevator, which was thankfully empty. He saw Larry hurrying towards him, but pretended not to notice him and let the doors close before he could get there.

Outside, the walkpath was back in operation. David slotted in between an Asian family with several children and an old black man, all of whom eyed him suspiciously. Maybe it was because they noticed the company name on the building where he’d came from. David fished out his e-pen and wrote “Call Laura” on the back of his left hand. His holoscreen appeared in front of him, and after a couple of seconds Laura’s face appeared. She was still wearing her night clothes.

“Hi David.”

David forced a smile.

“Hey. Just left work, so will be home soon.”

Laura nodded, not looking at the screen any more. She threw a handful of pills into her mouth, and drank water from a glass.

“How’s your day been?” she managed.

Laura swallowed the pills, still not looking at David. David’s jaw clenched.

“Ok, see you soon,” she continued.

He ended the call and put the e-pen back in his pocket with shaking hands. The old black man had been watching his call, and laughed to himself as he turned to face forward. David sighed. At least it had stopped raining.

The children behind him chattered like tiny birds all the way to the station, and then cut in front of him at the travelpods. A migraine began throbbing somewhere in his cerebral cortex. In the olden days, he could have just pushed the kids in front of the train, but alas, they all divided into their travelpods and the world was silent once more. David gingerly stepped into his pod, rubbing the sides of his head with both hands.

As David was whisked towards the platform, his left hand vibrated slightly. He looked down to see he had an incoming call. He placed his left hand on the holoscreen, and the image of an aged male doctor appeared before him.

“Hello, this is Doctor Sato from the fertility clinic. Is now a good time to talk?

David touched a button on the travelpod. The circumference became tinted. David gulped, nodded, and the doctor continued.

“We have the results from your test back, and… I’m afraid to say its bad news. Your sperm count is low, too low to conceive a child. There are a number of things we could try…”

David’s migraine exploded, drowning out the doctor’s voice. He nodded along feebly, squeezing his teeth together as tightly as he could. Doctor Sato stopped talking. He must have asked a question, as his eyebrows were raised. David ended the call.

David slumped back against the pod, and slowly slid down to the floor. His eyes were vacant. His brain was devoid of activity. Nothing registered until the first of his tears fell from his face and landed on the back of his left hand. The droplet flashed orange momentarily.

Sniveling, David wiped his face with his sleeve. What was he supposed to do now? A voice inside him told him to get a grip. Another voice told the first voice to fuck off. An avalanche of voices screamed out for attention as his brain sparked back into life. The quietest voice became David’s actual voice when all the others had dissolved.

“I’m scared,” he said aloud.

David slowly picked himself up, and stared at his reflection in the holoscreen. He ruffled his hair, trying to make it slightly more presentable. He pressed the button to de-tint the travelpod.

In the pod directly opposite, facing him, was the red-headed girl.

David wiped his eyes again, failing to comprehend what he was seeing.

The girl glanced up at him. She was wearing black. Her dry eyes met his wet eyes for a second, then darted low. Then she lifted her head, and stared directly at David. Her eyes were filled with… something. This wasn’t a blank stare. She was looking at him. David stared back.

She shuffled forward ever so slightly, maintaining eye contact with David. She lifted her right hand, and pressed her palm against the pod. Her eyes started to fill with water, and her bottom lip trembled.

Only David’s instincts were fully operational, but it was enough. He also raised his right hand to the same level as hers, and flattened it against the cool, translucent plastic.

They remained that way until the train pulled into the next platform, and her pod was abruptly moved out of the carriage. David remained fixated on her until she disappeared behind a cascade of travelpods, whirring and rotating into eternity. The shuffle completed, and the train glided away.

David peered into the retinal scanner. The front door to his house slid open.

“Welcome home, David.”

David kicked off his shoes, not caring where they lay. The house was silent. He ambled into the kitchen. It was spotless, as always, but unoccupied. He pulled open the fridge, hoping something would catch his eye. Negative.

“Would you like dinner, David?”

David sat on a high stool at the breakfast bar, a place where he had eaten breakfast not once.

“No, thank you.”

The HomeKit remained silent. David sat there, staring into nothingness. Eventually he heard movement from upstairs, the rustling of fabric, the sound of Laura rolling over in bed. David loosened his tie and stood up.

He dropped all his clothes in the laundry basket in the bathroom, and pressed the green button above it. The clothes were sucked out into the laundry chute with a pop and a click. David stood naked in front of the full length mirror. His gaze dropped to his testicles. His poor, useless testicles. He could almost see them contract with shame.

David crawled into bed. Laura was breathing deeply. He wondered how many pills she’d taken today. He could crank the music up to its highest volume, and she probably wouldn’t even stir. He watched her chest rise and fall slowly, her eyelids occasionally showing signs of movement. David prayed that she would never wake up.

He rolled over, turning away from her, and willed himself to sleep.

Tuesday. Tomorrow was Tuesday.

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