What Aiz hoped was water dripped from the tunnel ceiling. There was already no hope of keeping her hands clean; they were stained the same green-brown as the sewer wall she was using to feel her way along. If the directions she’d bought were correct she was nearing the point where she could use her phone light again. Minister Prime, did she ever miss being able to see!
Aiz fought the urge to break into a run. The dark was so complete, so silent, that it stoked an animal fear that should have been long bred out. It was the kind of deep dread that gave an ultimatum: run or freeze.
Counting her steps was helping her nerves from fraying too far. Aiz ducked as her step count took her within view of the thermal cameras, in theory skimming just below where they could sense. If she was wrong a warrant would be issued for her arrest before she could make it back to the surface. She hunched lower.
As her foot squelched into something soft Aiz considered turning back. It would be simple. She still had a normal life for another 388 steps. Her desk, her respectable job, her loving husband, and the state-approved dog they’d been lucky to get all waited for her. But so did the water.
Of course, the Minister Prime was right to put a cap on the population. It was good that would-be parents needed proper training and licensing before they could bring a new life into the world. The alternatives were archaic, but Aiz was weak. She was defective, her ‘mother’s instinct’ still blighting a brain that was born 50 years after such foolishness was supposed to be removed. They were on page 10 of the parental training wait list.
Aiz paused, one hand on the wall to steady herself as she took shaky breaths. If this worked she’d be a fugitive. Jexum would come with her of course, he was in on the plan, but they would need to work outside the system. The fringes of decency would be their new home, places like this their daily lives.
With all the sudden violence of a sob Aiz shot a convulsive neural pulse to her mood regulator. There was only a second before she felt the calm of new hormones entering her system. Each thump of her heart heightened her serenity until she could think clearly again.
Another pulse sent light radiating across the tunnel, scattering a pair of rats in a squeaking panic. To her left a canal was filled with half-dry sludge, the system long disused thanks to in-built toilet vaporizers. Aiz crinkled her nose. How people survived before vaporizers she didn’t want to know. She hoped the stuff on the walls and her hands was algae or early nanobots. The alternatives made her stomach twist.
Per instructions Aiz was careful not to wipe her hands on her clothes, holding her soiled fingers away from her body. A dozen women throughout the decades were caught that way. Unusual biomatter must always be reported and explained. The street scanners missed nothing.
As Aiz continued a door materialized from the darkness. It was a metal antique, with an actual, physical key hole. Shaking only a little, Aiz wiped her hand on the rag waiting by the door and pulled the key from a pocket sewn into the cloth.
It took a few tries to figure out how the contraption worked. It was infuriating. The mechanisms Tap wasn’t enabled and inserting the key didn’t reveal any keypads or biometric scanners. Her contact hadn’t mentioned this. As she tried to yank the key from the door her frustrated jerking turned it enough to spark the realization she needed.
Some museums still had swinging doors on display, so at least she managed that. The door swung outward, obliging Aiz to balance on the precipice of the sludge pool before she could maneuver herself into the ancient room. The breeze from the opening door stirred clumps of dust across the floor.
Furniture-shapes loomed under off-white sheets along one wall of the room, but Aiz only had eyes for the behemoth that waited for her. The monstrous machine dominated the space, a flicker of weak yellow light illuminating the glassed interior. Hulking grey sides stood in stark contrast to the gleaming white surfaces that marked every part of a clean, approved life.
Inside the machine rows and rows of bottles waited for Aiz, each swaddled in a dog-earred Desani label. Undoctored water. No hormones. No license. No stamp of approval. Just one bottle combined with her counter-top food replicator, and she could be clean long enough to bring a baby to term.
The coins she was to use as payment for the contraband cost a fortune in credits. They jangled, clumsy, as she fished them from her coat. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. The machine tallied as she fed it, feeling slightly perverse but unable to put her finger on why.
She punched ‘A7’ on the concave buttons and the monster began to whir as it ejected her future. She jumped as the bottle clattered into the bottom tray and found herself wiping tears as she removed enough base material for a year’s worth of replicated water. On impulse she decided not to right the emotional imbalance.
It would be the first in a long line of rebellions.