Tuesday Fiction: “The Good Things in Life” by H.H. Løyche
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by H.H.Løyche. Hans Henrik Løyche was born on a summer’s night in Copenhagen, Denmark, 1964. After studying at the Academy of Art and working and travelling in Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Africa, he returned to CoMa City (Copenhagen-Malmö) and began writing and co-editing Nye Verdener and Cirkel Serien. Member of the Writer’s Association of Denmark and co-founder of the Danish Fantastic Association (Fantastik), he received a two-year writer’s grant from the Danish National Art Foundation in 1999. Nominated Best Author in the 2007 European Hall of Fame Awards, his novella The Manuduction won the prestigious 2009 Harbinger Relay Award.
Løyche’s debut novel Støj (Baffling Noise) appeared in 1996, although he has published articles and short stories since 1989, and still writes for major magazines and daily newspapers today. His recent works include a cyberpunk story for movie director Tómas Gislason, and an annotated and illustrated collection of H.C. Andersen’s science fiction. Even before finishing his trilogy of novels, critics placed Løyche in the top ranks of Danish authors. His Mission til Schamajim (Mission to Schamajim) is listed as one of the three great Danish science fiction novels.
The Good Things in Life
Burnished titanium glints as a group of racing cyclists shoot along the country road. Maintaining distance as uniform as train wagons, the blue pinpoint lights at the cyclists’ temples cut through the bright summer morning. The bodies move on for hours, ignorant of the passing landscapes and villages. Around noon they come to a stop. A bus waits for them on the bank of a dried-up river. For a while, the cyclists remain standing at their vehicles, each with the left hand on the saddle, the right hand on the handlebars, and their eyes fixed at the horizon; a soldier parade presents surreal weapons. One by one, the blue pinpoint lights go out, and the men squat down. Having trained to the limit of their physical capability, they are almost too exhausted to remove their helmets. Then, the manager comes out of the bus and hand out refreshments. They begin chatting and lifting the bicycles onto the rack in the rear end of the bus.
“You’ve had an accident, Joe?” the manager asks.
“Yes. Look… the nasty scratch at your elbow.”
“Must have knocked against something. Good thing it didn’t interrupt my ride.”
The manager leaves for a moment and comes back carrying a first-aid box. Joe has his elbow bandaged in silence, until he suddenly says:
“Where is Brian?”
The group scans the area for the missing champion, but neither he nor his bicycle is present.
“Not again!” the manager shouts. “Try to locate his transponder while I call the rescue team.”
About two hours later, Brian’s wife Camilla and their daughter Claire come home and learn about the disappearance. They are told that Brian was involved in a collision somewhere along the route, and a rescue team is on the way. Camilla was already feeling a bit depressed, and calls her psychiatrist. Not knowing that Camilla uses Auto Pilot far too much, he recommends her to take a break, whenever sad or tiresome experiences threaten to overwhelm her. “Don’t let emotions dictate your life,” the psychiatrist warns. “Emotions are nothing but waste products of the central nervous system.”
Camilla works at a public library. Being bored by the job, she turns on her AP from the moment she arrives at the building. Until lunch break, or until some problem arises which is not covered by the library’s Reflex Bank, her body goes through whatever motions are necessary to serve the borrowers. Meantime, the quasi-conscious part of Camilla’s brain watches some soap opera or is simply asleep.
Four days a week, Camilla takes exercise for a couple of hours, to maintain the right muscular tone. She’s usually on AP at the fitness centre too.
Blissfully ignorant of his own conduct, the missing racing cyclist still puts distance between himself and the pick-up point at the river. Although his speed has come down a bit.
Camilla picks up Claire at the kindergarten. The single nursery assistant on duty is watching tv and sipping coffee, while two hundred children play computer games or draw the same drawings over and over again. Not a single child’s voice is heard. All of the children’s AP lights are glowing, their minds kept offline during most of the day.
When home and finally released from the AP, Claire becomes talkative and demanding. The maid is still in the apartment, cleaning up, and Camilla asks her whether there is any news about Brian. As the maid tries to answer, the little one begins to yell. Camilla tries not to sound angry, but she just can’t take it today. It comes to a struggle as Camilla reattaches her daughter’s AP and switches her off. Afterwards, Camilla is about to order the maid to prepare dinner, but ends up giving her a talking-to. Although the maid has been a bit sloppy lately, Camilla feels a surge of guilt. She weeps and hurries out to the bathroom to hide her tears. There, she turns herself off.
The racing cyclist has begun to wobble. Sometime during the night, he is challenged by a great hill, and his legs finally give up pedaling.
Camilla drives through downtown, where millions of unconscious bodies are working, jogging, shopping, eating, whatever. The clouds above the town remind Claire of rotten brain tissue. She tries to visualize what it would be like to dress up in a rotten cloud, but her untrained mind cannot handle the image. Then her attention is caught by something else: a young man who forgot to shave is being paralyzed and dragged away by policemen on AP. Some months of community service, scraping chewing gum off the pavements, should correct this hooligan’s behavior.
The town beneath the sky has never been so tidy since the criminals and insane were put to work under AP control. Buildings, streets, and parks are cleaned up to the last bird dropping. Camilla and Claire are strolling in the AP shop of a department store. The blue temple lights and absent eyes of the shop assistants serve to guarantee the customers that they deal with machines, not human beings. Camilla buys a Trance Dance RB update for Claire and an erotic RB for herself.
Hundreds of motorists spot Brian in the verge 580 kilometers from his assumed whereabouts. Nobody reacts. Not until a freelance journalist sees a possible story. Recognizing the racing cyclist, the journalist immediately calls the police. Although dehydrated and overexerted, Brian is still alive when the police arrive. Noticing his dog tag, they call his manager. After briefly haggling over the reward, the policemen dump Brian into the boot of the police car, and take him to a private hospital for sports injuries. The manager and a couple of bodyguards are already present, busy trying to ward off the journalist. As they learn that the journalist called the police, he is granted a brief interview. He questions the doctor who examines the unconscious patient.
“I understand this wasn’t an isolated episode. What’s the problem? Epilepsy?”
“No. Brian is in perfect condition. Guess it was an AP parameter malfunction. Just bad luck, it got him twice… It happens now and then… Like the guy whose AP kept him hostage for a decade.”
“We’d better inform the wife now,” one of the policemen throws in. “Guess she is anxious to see him.”
“All Camilla Drexler cares about is Brian’s income,” the manager reflects. “Just tell her that we’ve found him, and he’s all right. If she wishes to see Brian, she can make an appointment through his agent.”
The journalist shrugs and leaves with the policemen. The bodyguards follow the rescuers out of the ward. Locking the door behind them, the manager carries on in a subdued voice:
“It’s the second time this season. We’ve got to find a solution before somebody discovers the brain hemorrhage.”
Camilla and her daughter are relaxing after several hours of conscious shopping. Claire is investigating the texture of a dust mouse, which she has found behind the sofa. She asks her mother what it is, but is interrupted by the hum of the telephone. Having already removed her make up, Camilla answers in voice-only:
“Yes…? Where…? Really…? Thank you… No, I haven’t talked with any journalist… Would I like to see him…? What’s the point if he is unconscious? Goodbye.”
Camilla puts down the phone, grabs her AP and inserts the new erotic RB. Realizing that her mother is unavailable, the little one turns on the television to see if her father is in the sports news. She finds herself surrounded by an advertisement for the Strategic Combat Communication and Remote Pilot System – a trademark of Budget Rent-a-Body. The soldiers keep fighting in spite of their wounds. As the Mongol enemy is finally gunned down and put into AP custody, the letters SCCRPS appear in the air. Then comes the jingle and the motto: “Cleans up anything, anywhere.”
Camilla comes in a silent orgasm.
At the monthly social network meeting for the library employees, Camilla is confronted with her habit of telling her colleagues when they can and can’t use AP.
“To tell the truth, Brenda, I’m scared. People scare me.”
“People? Nobody needs to be afraid of people. If they are dangerous, we just switch ’em off. If we are still afraid, we can switch ourselves off.”
“That’s what scares me. It’s like we’ve met the enemy, and they’re us…”
Noticing the looks of her friends – some uncomprehending, some uneasy, some plain unsympathetic – the chairwoman interrupts:
“Ladies, please… Could we end this paranoid discussion?”
“Sorry,” Camilla tries to smooth it over. “I didn’t mean to offend the group.”
“Yeah?” Brenda sneers. “Then try to remember that friends are for the good things in life, not the cranky.”
Brian is in the small group of four breakaways at the very last stage of the race, when a collision suddenly happens in front of him. There is no way he can avoid the bloody mess of bodies and bicycles. He drives straight over one body and into a bicycle frame, flips over, and hits the asphalt on his back. Still clinging on to his bicycle, he pushes himself on, rolls over, and gets back on the wheels. Without hesitation, he powers on to catch up with the single remaining competitor. Simultaneously, the competitor – having heard the rest of the breakaways crash – seems confident of victory, and relaxes a little. He does not notice Brian until it is too late. The yells rise to a roar, when Brian breasts the tape half a wheel before the competitor.
A bulldozer scrapes the road clear of bodies and bicycles to make room for the homecoming pack. Nobody cares for the cyclist who Brian ran down. Meanwhile, the bodyguards fight to make room for the pretty girls to assist the incoming racing cyclists, first removing their helmets and AP tags, then following them into a white auto camper, to deliver a blood sample.
After a short break during the medical evaluation, the results are ready. Only eleven participants are disqualified due to doping, and Brian has once again won the race. The winners shake hands and carry Brian onto the stage for the cup ceremony. Brian steps onto the winners’ platform. A garland is put around his neck and he is handed a giant, golden trophy, which he can barely carry. Claire feels so proud of her father that she can’t resist breaking free of Camilla, and rushes onto the stage. Brian almost topples over when the girl throws herself into his arms. Camilla stays in the background, listening to popping Champagne bottles and the never-ending applause, watching her daughter laugh, and her husband smile to the cameras.
The illusion is perfect. Nobody suspects that Brian’s skull hides another AP, a jumble of artificial nerves, and a brain wave communication device – or that his reflexes were updated by a team of specialists during the race, and his gestures are now remote-controlled by an actor. Camilla is sobbing without noticing, wishing that Brian could have shared these moments of glory in the years which followed his brain death.
Originally written in English.
“The Good Things in Life” was previously published in Christophe Duchet a.o. (ed.): Fiction (ant.), Les moutons électriques éditeur, France (2005); 9 no. 305, Ch.K. Tegopoulos Editions S.A., Greece (2006); Terra Fantastika no. 12, Bulgaria (2007). It received honorable mention at the Balticon short story contest, Finland 2003.
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