As always, the buzzing troubled his sleep. The whirr of it mutated his dreams and sent him into a cold sweat. The image that infiltrated his slumber, again, was of a hoard of flying insects. They flew in perfect ranks, descending out of the sun, intent on his destruction. Time to wake up! Upon waking, it was clear, that his cubicle door was open, again. His TeleVisor terminal was on, again. And his face was not screwed on tight, yet again.
First, he screwed on his face! How foolish he had been. Who knew what his expression could have displayed to the casual passer-by. Of course, the ‘good’ citizens would never have looked. For to be a good ‘Mortem’ was to mind your place, to be respectful, to never peak around the edges, and to always keep your face screwed on tight. Yet, it is was just the kind of Mortem, the one who might have looked, that troubled Slip. That was the fellow that would misuse what they had seen, unchecked revelations on Slip’s unfettered face. Slip was not a good Mortem.
And, still, the buzzing droned on. The irony of the ‘insect dream’ dawned on Slip – just as morning dawned on Mortem. Insects: a prehistoric form of pollination. Relegated to obscurity (or to the exhibits at the ‘museums-on-line’). It was absurd that any random pollination was ever tolerated. It reminded Slip of the “F” word. An activity banned, at the insistence of women, as an unwanted form of pollination. Yet, cherished by men, as a means of recreation. Another purpose driven interaction reduced to recreation – and regulated by the “Committee of the Correct”.
The buzzing continued. The cubicle door remained open. His face relaxed. The message light blinked (and buzzed). The all-important “Message Reminder” strobed at him with its’ dream inducing buzzing drone. A note he had left for himself was demanding his attention. He knew what it was, and yet, he turned to retrieve it. The message: “Use up your C-Cards – for you will be married by tomorrow morn”. As if he was likely to forget THAT. “Now, that is an uppity attitude to take” Slip said aloud – an expression creeping onto his face. How would he ever forget that? And yet, there was certainly another ‘unforgettable’ reminder currently waiting its’ preset appointment – its’ time to buzz and blink – and for the life of him Slip could not remember what that message could be. Nor had he the faintest inkling as to content of the last message he had left himself. Yesterday. In life, so very much was a mystery! He screwed on his face.
What was not a mystery was the C-Cards. They were obvious and tangible and precious. The last two remaining Companion Cards. They were pinned to the wall, beside the still open door. Despite the lack of last night’s sleep, He would not forget them. For it was just a few short hours ago that Slip had finally given up trying to craft his “marriage face”. On this, the day of his wedding, Slip had still not chosen the artificial expression he would affix to his features at the climax of the wedding ceremony. That expression, his gift to his new bride, was the private exchange between couples that only they should share.
For countless hours Slip had toiled before the screen. He contorted first one aspect and then another – and again another. He moved a crease, erased a wrinkle or slid some feature or line – yet no expression pleased him. Nothing even came close. Dedicated, determined and deathly still he had sat in front of the screen – making faces at himself. It was another desperate night of squints and smirks, wry smiles and subtle changes. In weary frustration he had fallen into slumber, only to be awakened by the insect buzzing, nightmare dream he knew so well.
What Slip needed, he thought, was inspiration. He tried to imagine what contortion his father may have presented to his mother on their wedding day. His father was a highly respected Mortem, a member of the council. He never had on an expression. He even slept with his face screwed on tight. What an awesome and distant figure a boy’s father can be. Slips father had risen, without expression, to head the council. Slips father held the rank of Post Mortem. Slip was overwhelmed by his father.
How the door came to be open did not trouble Slip. He was not a good Mortem. He was ‘loose lipped’, ‘screw loose’ and did not keep his head ‘screwed on tight’. All the common and cruelly intended insults applied to him. He found his TV on and his door open often in the mornings when he awoke. Why would it be different on his wedding day?
The room was not his friend. It was filled with corners and always seemed to ‘gleam’ at him, just a bit. Never quite in the direction he was looking, but rather just astride his field of vision. He could sense that it ‘gleamed’ a bit, just where he wasn’t quite looking. But never in the corners. The corners always seemed shadowed and far away. So many corners. Stark white walls dotted conspicuously with notes, and tickets, and other reminders. There were always reminders. Some odd chit on the wall. At first, they were an effective nuisance, now he hardly noticed them at all. The room itself was a model of ultra-compact efficiency. Every necessity, and many eccentricities, fused into so compact an area that it left and oppressive void that just barely gleamed – but was not his friend.
Perhaps it was time to pace and think!
His room did, at the moment, seem ideal for pacing, Slip thought, as he spun deftly and retraced his path. His legs taut and muscular were used to pacing. On his 83rd circuit it occurred to him that he ought to close the door. Without breaking stride, a flick of his toe not only shut the door but robbed him of his train of thought. He decided to count the corners again.
Slip loved his mother and she loved him, either in spite of, or perhaps because of his flaws. She managed to affirm him with just the slightest hint of an expression. It was all he needed. She gave him the scent of a smile, one that only he could see. She offered him the vague sense of ‘whimsy’ missing from the rest of normal life. She was devoted to his father, unfailing in her grace, and she gave Slip’s life just the tiniest breath of air – she alone.
If his mother gave him breath – it was the Companions who gave him ‘life’.
Ah, the Companions, lithe a graceful. Their faces a festival of animation. They danced with the exuberance that was theirs alone to show. Their giddy chirping voices were ripe with the sounds of child-full self-indulgence. Waves of pleasure washed over their clear bright faces. For the Companions lived outside the norms. They not only offered themselves – but displayed openly their delight. But only if you had a C-Card. How amused they seemed when Slip’s, poorly regulated, features countered in shuddering syncopation the delighted expressions of their own.
The final two Comparison Cards, two thirty-minute installations, the end of his ration. He had saved them for his wedding day. The Companion Cards stuck to the wall as glaring icons to the loss of his youth. Potent sentinels foreshadowing a transition into whatever the consequences of marriage might be. This too was the day he would meet his mate, in ceremony. He would hold his face in check and commit himself with the vows the Prefect fed him. He would tread into marriage, a spoon-fed line at a time. Having completed the litany, there before the assembled, he would lift the vail and gaze upon the bland expressionless face of his bride. She would lead him behind the screen and show him the face she made for him – the marriage face. A synthesized expression with not a bit of feeling behind the eyes. Not a bit like the robust unbridled emotions that danced across the loving faces of the Companions.
With the Companion Cards clenched tightly in his fist, he went to them.
He had gone to their temple, been escorted through their gates, and now waited eagerly in the designated room. They came gleefully to him, at last, the moment had finally arrived. The Companions, the healers, effervescent in white linen gowns. The Companions, aberrations in the social order. Moral misfits, at the lowest rung of the social ladder. They who provided a service so dear that their time was scheduled and regulated by an entire branch of civil authority. A bureaucracy solely devoted to overseeing the proper dispensation of their favors. And Slip, for this hour, the penultimate hour of his youth, allowed himself to be immersed into the lightness and delight that they alone could shine upon him. An experience that would be etched, as if by feathers, into his often-failing memory.
When the time of the ceremony arrived, Slip arrived as well. He held his face tightly in check. He ran the gauntlet of the processional. He stared back blankly at the sea of human blandness, the collective of the invited. Civil, flat and dull they watched, barely blinking and pathetically content. Disengaged, and completely uncertain as to what expression he would offer his communally chosen bride, Slip traveled the aisle with a hint of melancholy. Slip arrived at his destination. He stopped beside his bride. He did justice to his part in the ceremony – his mind adrift, the whimsy of the Companions still offering him a much-needed crutch.
The drone of the Prefect matched the drone of the insects from Slips dream. Slip marched to its’ beat. He stood where told to stand. He knelt, recited, and allowed himself to be led through the ritual. He found himself, at last, behind the screen. He was aware that he had lifted the vail of what now was his wife. She and the moment had his attention, at last. At that moment, her face transformed, from benign indifference, into something that reminded him of his mother.