Congratulations to Christopher Wyer, first place winner in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy category of the 15th Annual Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards! Here's his winning story, "The Inhibitor Check."
The Inhibitor Check
The spider’s legs tapped against the glass furiously, repeatedly striking against the walls of the invisible prison that held it with inscrutable wrath. Eva kept her eyes focused on it from above, a chill that spread like sheet lightning streaked across her limbs and she shivered at the sight. She had never seen the creature in real life before, and although it was smaller than the circumference of her palm, it filled her with a primal dread, and yet, she could not take her eyes off of it. She watched it's angry twitching, watched its desperate escape attempts, she watched it until her eyes blurred and she felt something drip on her cheek. Trapped. She took a letter from the increasing pile of bills, and slid it carefully under the glass, and brought it to the window. It must of escaped from the Botanical Facilities in the centre of the city, but that was miles away, and she was sick of looking at it. She opened the window, and felt a welcome breeze saunter into the flat. The ground was a million miles below, her disgust began to grow into general sickness, almost like the building was growing beneath her, the floor descending further and further away. She extended her arms with the glass and paper stretched before her, and quickly shook them, upending the glass towards the earth below, and retracted her arms back into the warm room and shut the window again as if it might somehow be blown back into the room. She had no idea if the creature would survive such a fall, but in this moment, she didn't care. She tried to sigh the queasy feeling out her stomach, but instead spread it to her lungs. She took a glance out of the window to the world ahead. The towers of
Barge-London stood silhouetted against a golden canvas, but beyond that, she could see the infinite ocean beyond, with shards of sparkling light dancing on an azure stage below the stunning backdrop. The sea beyond had always calmed her, from the top of the high-rise she and Mason shared. From where the building stood, only the flats near the top could see beyond the reaches of the port-yards and factories at the edges of the City, they were fortunate to get it, even if it was falling apart. Luck. Her eyes began to focus again, and suddenly obscuring the view was a woman, who looked like she had been crying all day, hadn't changed out of her pyjama's or bothered to wash, and had all but given up on everything, she had become a stranger to even her own reflection. She turned to the mounted wall clock. 17:39. Mason would be home any minute now.
She had to tell him she was pregnant.
Mason let the keys jangle in his hand. In his left hand he held a heavy shopping bag, filled with groceries, including curried-chicken instant ramen—which had always been Eva's favorite hangover snack—and a seafood one for himself. He tried to shift the bag onto his wrist, while he tried to select the right key with his other hand. Finally, he let himself in.
“Hellooo” He said rhythmically, as he did every night he came home, never waiting for an answer. He threw his back pack onto the floor with a comical sigh, and took the recyclable bag to the kitchen, passing the silent living room. The room was beginning to darken, strands of orange light reached in, gently caressing the large Tele-screen that was front and centre of the living area. The flat was small, but they took pride in it's presentation, Eva always made sure the cushions were just so, and that attention to detail made him beam with pride. As he passed he saw a mound of golden locks, hiding behind the sofa. He set the bag down on the counter, and slowly made his way to the back of the sofa, and found the most beautiful woman in the world, even if she was still in her pyjama's. He gently placed his hands on her shoulders, and felt her body shift, moving slightly towards him, and he kissed her on the top of the head. He slowly moved his arms so he wrapped himself around her neck, with his head resting atop of hers, and her hand reached to squeeze his forearm. He stayed there for a minute, not saying a word. He could tell she hadn't made a point to shower, but he still loved the way she smelled.
“How are you feeling, hun?” He said finally. She made an incoherent grunt, muffled by his arm. He smiled, and looked to the coffee table in front of them. An ash tray sat, full of discarded butts and an almost-empty packet of cigarettes, when only a couple were sitting there when he left for work. She was smoking again, which was a good sign, she couldn't even handle a single one last night.
Cigarettes had been cancer and toxin free since before either of them were born, but he still hated the smell. He kissed her head again, and moved to the kitchen, and felt her reluctantly release his arm.
“So, if you're feeling hungry, I got you that gourmet meal I promised.” He said with a wry smile, walking to his bag of procured goods, looking back to see if she had looked back. Slowly, he saw her face lifted up to look at him. Her eyes looked raw and red, but brimming with curiosity. He lifted out her large pot of ramen, with a Ta-Da! Her expression never changed though, even when he brought out the bottle of her favorite white wine. He held it in hand, and grabbed two glasses from the cupboard, and walked over to the sofa. The room was darkening, and the orange stained the room, painting it in a dream-like haze. He sat down heavily, with a broad smile next to her. He felt the weight of his day crawl up his legs and back, and released a long sigh, staring deeply into her hazel eyes, that seemed to shimmer in the dusk. No matter how hard his day at the foundries were, no matter how many corners seemed to mould, or the cheap apparatus seemed to break in their shitty apartment, she managed to always make him feel like everything was going to work out fine. He set the glasses on the table, and opened the bottle of cheap white, and generously poured for both of them, and took his own, relaxing in the twilight. He looked at her serenely, but she didn't move for the glass. His other hand gently stroked her arm, but she just looked down.
“Everything alright, babe?” He asked, concern growing in his belly. She still didn't say anything, she just reached for her glass, her finger trailing the rim, but did not drink.
“So, how are you feeling? Were you sick again today?” He didn't want to admit it, but truly he wanted to know if she would be at work tomorrow. In the administration sector, you were only given two sick days per-annual, if she took a third tomorrow, things could be a little tight next month. Still, Eva said nothing, just watching her glass with morbid fascination, as her finger danced along the edge. Mason sighed.
“Well, I had a hell of a day. Someone left one of the service hatches open, we thought the core was starting to overheat at one point, luckily-” He started rambling, thinking about the close call this afternoon that had convinced him to buy the wine, but then she spoke.
“I found out I'm pregnant.” She said quickly. The words caught in Mason's throat, and his eyes widened with horror, as he watched her gulp her wine down in one.
His mouth was agape and he stared blankly at her.
“What?” He finally managed. She didn't reply. She just stared at him with wet eyes, and wiped her mouth, and set the glass onto the table. She wanted to pick the glass back up, but resisted the urge. “You..you..you..” He started, but never quite finished the sentence. She felt a pang of frustration in her stomach. She didn't know what to say, and obviously, neither did he. She tried to plan out the conversation in her head, like how she would re-visit arguments in her head when in the shower and plot her victory out, syllable by syllable, but that all faded. No words remained, just Mason with his mouth wide and open. She reached for a cigarette from the packet on the table but stopped herself. She had heard about people before the Inhibitors, who could cause health problems for their children if they smoked too regularly. She decided to take one anyway, and reached for the lighter. The pack was almost out, but she wouldn't be able to afford another packet this month, they were so expensive. Her reasoning was that if she got rid of them now, then she wouldn't have any more in the house to tempt her, but that logic always went out of the window when her teeth started to itch. She lit it up and inhaled deeply. Mason continued to watch, but she made it apparent from her expression that it was his turn to speak.
“You..you're sure?” He swallowed hard. “Are..are you sure?” She nodded, slightly irritated that had not been obvious.
“I took the test six times. Every time.” She said slowly, but seriously.
“But..but..it's not..how is it possible?” He said, almost desperately. The panic was clear in his wide eyes. She took another drag, and stared back at him.
“I don't know.”
The room around him began to spin. He had to set the wine down, but his hand was shaking. His breathing was short, but quick. He could feel his cheeks and ears redden, and his head felt moist. This was bad. This is really, really bad. His breathing quickened, but his lungs felt sore, empty. He stared at his glass, and it was blurry. This is bad. This is so bad. His mouth was dry.
Then she put her hand on his arm, and slowly, his breathing slowed down, and he rotated his head to look at her, the panic plain on his face. Part of him expected her to look at him with abject pity, but all he saw was understanding. So this is what she's been doing all day. He swallowed hard. He understood now. He breathed deeply and closed his eyes.
“So.” He said, finally. “What do we do?”
She shook her head sadly, stubbing out her half-smoked cigarette with something akin to malice. “That's the thing Mase. I don't know.” She choked at the last word, and her eyes began to stream. Mason instinctively took her into his arms, and gently caressed her as she sobbed. He shushhed her, and kissed her head.
“Hey, it's going to be okay.” His lie coming out as no more than a whisper. She continued to sob. “I..I really don't know what I'm going to do..” She said heavily.
“I guess, we'll have to book you in with the Medi-bots at the clinic.” He said softly. She shuddered. “Eugh, you know I can't stand those things. They're so cold..” She squeezed her hand on his arm, as she remembered the last cervical check-up she had with one of those walking sex-toys. Mason sighed with understanding but a little impatience.
“Babe, we're going to have to.” He was right. No way could they afford a human doctor, even if they had the money to have registered for a legal pregnancy permit, which would have taken almost a year of forms, social workers, and several grand they could never save up for.
“Well..I mean, do we?” She asked, looking up at him brightly. “People have been giving birth without Medi-Bots for centuries, I would imagine. Maybe we don't really need it?” She tried to force a smile, but Mason looked away. His head was elsewhere. She laid her head onto his shoulder. “I mean, if we keep it, anyway.” She said, staring at the blank Tele-screen. The night had grown darker. The golden orange had turned a cauterised purple and red, leaving the flat in almost blackness.
“Well, that's the thing, isn't it?” Mason said after contemplating for a while. “If we do go to the Medi-Bots, we will have to register it as an illegal child, and reported to the authorities..” No-one was quite clear on what happened after registering an illegal child, and Mason was sure it was more common then the media would let on. If they faced a fine, they would be pretty screwed. Might have to move in with Eva's mother, a thought that made him feel a little queasy. If they decided, however, to separate him and Eva and incarcerate them, or take the child to social services for adoption, well the idea of going through this only to be separated from him did not bare thinking about. It might drive him insane. He squeezed her a little tighter. Of course, that wasn't the thing that was bothering him.
“If..if we do decide to keep it..” He started carefully. He swallowed. “If we do..”
“If we do?” Eva asked, raising her head. “If I do.” She stared at him intently. “You think I want to go to a back alley clinic for someone to cut it out of me? Like a gypsy or a prole?” Mason could hear the anger swelling up in her voice. “It's my choice, Mason. It's my body. I thought you of all people would respect that.” He looked back at her, sorrow deep in his eyes.
“If it's mine, then I should get a say too.” He said quietly. He could feel tears welling up in his own eyes, and saw that hers were wet too. She rested her head on his shoulder again, and let out a moan, as if ejecting all the negativity from within. Suddenly his Smart-Watch began to beep. He checked it. It was time to take his radiation medication, as he did every four hours. The wonders of working in a foundry powered by nuclear energy. He sighed, but looked at Eva, resting so comfortably on his arm. It wouldn't do any harm to let it wait for half an hour or so.
“Besides.” He said slowly. “It's not that what I'm really worried about. It's the cap.” His voice was thick with emotion. She looked back at him.
Shit. She forgot about the cap.
The true meaning of the Inhibitor. 99 Million.
“Oh..yeah. Shit. We'll have to register..won't we?” She heard a chewing sound, and saw Mason biting his dirty nails, a habit he said he had kicked over four years ago. “Hey..I'm sure it's fine. Maybe it's not as bad as Dawson says—"
“Dawson says” He interrupted, as if utterly focused. “That it's the Inhibitor chips that report it to the government. Maybe it already knows..” He sounded like he was beginning to panic. Eva sighed.
She loved her brother Dawson, but he was a paranoid ass at times. He had to make everything about the government a 1984 allegory.
“The Inhibitors are just to prevent pregnancy and diseases, you know this. They are not a kill switch.” She tried to sound reassuring, bringing herself upright to look him in the eyes, but he was facing elsewhere, eyes inherently focused.
“You don't know that. None of us know that.” He was speaking quickly, panic apparent. She had never seen him like this. “One person born, one person dies, and vice versa. That's the law right? The cap.” He turned to look at her. “99 Million. No more, no less.” She could tell he was serious. She couldn't tell if she was worried or just pitied him at this point.
“Yeah, but the government doesn't kill people, Mason! Not for rogue pregnancies anyway.” She said, exasperated. Dawson and Mason were co-workers, and before he introduced her to Mason, they used to spend a lot of their free time getting stoned in the flat they shared. Mason had, thankfully, grown out of it, but her brother never did, and now he was a paranoid mess.
“We don't know that.” He said again.
She sighed, and turned slightly away, but he moved closer to her.
“Listen, sometimes it's a heart-attack, sometimes it's an accident, but it's always random! It's like a lottery! But you know..one you don't want to win.” He felt animated, the panic was puppeteering him like electricity into a deactivated 'Bot. He swallowed again.
“What if it's someone we know?” He said, more subdued this time.
“How would we know?” She said impatiently. “If it's that incidental, we wouldn't ever know, would we?” He stared at her. He knew she had meant to sound facetious, but he stared at her seriously, with complete understanding.
“You're right..what if..so what if it is someone we know? What if it's someone we didn't know? A family man, a mother of two?” He spoke quietly, as if forgetting she was even there, staring at him with plain annoyance and impatience.
“What if it's a criminal?” She asked. “Like a child molester? On death row, they keep them locked up, and execute them when a child is born. How about that?” She tilted her head, plainly watching for his reaction. He only nodded, again obscured by deep thought.
“Even if it is..” He said slowly. “Are we..condemning them to death? Are we activating some kill switch?” He drifted off a little at the end. She moved to him, grabbed his head in her hands. “No.” She said clearly, taking charge, her eyes burning into his. “No, we're not doing anything wrong here. This is going to be okay, we are not responsible for any stupid law the government has concocted okay? We're going to be okay.” Her hands remained at the sides of his heads, and she kissed him deeply, passionately, the most passionate since they first went to bed together. “I love you.” She said, watching his eyes with extreme focus.
“I love you too” He said, honestly, but still not smiling. The room was getting darker.
She had rested her head on his chest. She felt his chest heave, and his heartbeat slow to a rhythmic beat. It was soothing, like waves on a beach.
“If it's a boy, I was thinking about the name Jack, like my dad.” She said, breaking several minutes of silence. Mason snorted with laughter.
“What?” She asked, a little annoyed, but smiling at the sound of his laughter again.
“Jack?” He laughed again. “Oh no, we are not giving him an old man name. It's gotta be something cool, like Odin, or Zeus”
This time she laughed.
“Why does it have to mythological? Besides that girl at work I was telling you about is thinking about naming her child Zeus, and she's enough of a bitch as it is.”
They laughed together. A beautiful, chiming sound in the dark, and they fell silent again. Finally Mason broke the silence once more.
“You think she ever thinks about it? You know..the cap?” He asked earnestly.
“No.” She responded at once. “And we shouldn't either.” She checked his face again, and saw he was calm. She replaced her head back onto his chest.
“You're right.” He sighed.
By the time night had completely enveloped the flat, she had fallen asleep on his chest. He remembered idly twisting her golden hair gently between his fingers, but he could not remember for the life of him what he had been thinking about. So many thoughts and images twisted and reverberated in his head. He blinked a few times and shook his head, like waking from a deep slumber. He discovered he had been staring at the blank Tele-screen, silhouetted in the black. The room was completely silent, save for her rhythmic breathing gently on his chest. He let the soothing sound abound in his head, and tilted his head back, trying desperately to piece together a coherent thought. He wanted to get up, smoke a cigarette, go to the toilet, scream at the mirror, shake Eva awake and cry into her arms, but he didn't move a muscle.
Instead he stared at the ceiling. He imagined what their child would look like. Jack. Maybe, if he let her have her way. Hopefully she would let him pick something much, much cooler. He thought about a miniature them, with Eva's hazel eyes, and beautiful wavy hair, and his own cheeky smile he inherited from his father. He managed a grin at that. A handsome child. Full of life and love, struggling with school and then working in the foundries like his old man. Maybe he'll find a beautiful wife, and they will patiently go through the system legally and have a son they love of their own. Maybe. Maybe it will come full circle. Maybe he will be sitting here in twenty years' time with his own dilemma circulating in his head. Maybe some disaster will befall him before he even gets to that point. Maybe all of this worry, stress and evasion will be for naught.
Mason clenched his fists. He thought of death. He thought about anyone he knew suddenly dropping to the floor when the baby was born. As soon as the head crowns, maybe a string will snap and a piano will fall on his boss, or a truck will carelessly slam into a mother, a sister, a wife, a husband or a son. Maybe Eva might be the one to die. A nurse is slid a hefty stack under the stable by a government man in a suit, and suddenly 'forgets' to re-enable her Inhibitor, and she passes on. Maybe someone points a silenced pistol into Mason's back as he makes his way to the hospital. As his eyes close, the baby's opens. He wouldn't mind that so much. Passing on his legacy, ending all of his own pain, but the thought of Eva trying to exist in this crazy world with a new born child filled him with shame.
If it didn't, he could march into the bathroom right now, and tip his radiation medication into the disposal system. A few months of chest pain and coughing blood, and if he timed it right, he could pass just as the baby is born. He held the image of the orange bottle in his hand, hovering above the disposal system in the bathroom sink. He imagined looking into the eyes of his reflection. Imagined a man who had given up on everything, and had become a stranger to even his own reflection, but the more he stared, the more he interpreted. There was hope there, a brightness, and love, but it was hidden behind a decision; a decision to do the right thing. He blinked again, and he was staring at the ceiling still.
He really did need to use the toilet now.