The dream must have been a bad one, even if I can’t remember it. My hands are trembling, crescent-moon imprints in my palms, blood almost drawn. My heart thuds in beat with the click-clacking of the train as it rumbles along towards the next stop, uncaring of my nightmares. Up and down the carriage – people are staring at me. Either I cried out when I woke up or I spoke in my sleep again. Addie used to tell me that I’d wake her up by screaming, or crying for help, or even saying something sinister. I smile and make eye contact with a few of the commuters, and most look away and return to their business. No one wants to risk me starting a conversation with them, the strange woman on the train haunted by her nightmares.
I rub my head, feeling the tiny CensorChip embedded under the skin just above my ear. This isn’t supposed to happen anymore. I tap my wristband – the holo-screen extends down my forearm – and scroll to check the Chip’s status. All ticks and green lights. The description makes me want to rip the stupid thing out: Connect to your CensorChip to free yourself from nightmares and hallucinations for a restful sleep. Cranium – improving the mind today for a better tomorrow.
Addie warned me not to get a CensorChip, though she refuses to go to Cranium for anything, even a simple health assessment. I switch to my TherAppist to distract myself and practice my breathing exercises. Screwing my face up tight. Tensing muscles then releasing them. It doesn’t work, and a woman across from me is still eyeing me cautiously.
I check the map. Still six stops to home, but there’s a Cranium shop in two.
The Cranium shop gleams from the outside. Its moving window display advertises everything from purse-wrenching SkillMods to semi-affordable Focus ones. The Med ones – Cranium’s latest market expansion since most hospitals were privatised – take up the left-hand side of the display, promising age-defying cell regeneration or lifesaving Nanobot treatment. The number in front of the latter flashes red as it scans me: out of my price range.
‘It’s immoral,’ Addie had said when Cranium had announced their expansion plans. ‘If they’re really all about this ‘better tomorrow’, then they should make it so everyone can afford it.’
‘But we can afford it,’ I’d replied, frustrated at her refusal to get help. ‘Don’t you want to get better?’
‘Why should I be able to access something that others can’t? What makes my life more valuable?’
I’d not had an answer to that, but, unknown to Addie, I’d already given into the marketing and had my CensorChip installed.
Inside, a shop assistant greets me with a beaming smile and cheerful tone, not a single hair out of place nor imperfection marking her glowing skin. ‘Hello Alexis, welcome to—’
‘Lexi,’ I correct her, and her face freezes for a split second as she takes in the information.
‘Hello Lexi,’ she says. ‘Welcome to Cranium, how can I help you today?’
‘The latest CensorChip Mod I bought, I’m not getting the dreams or nightmares anymore – or at least I don’t remember them – but I’m still feeling like shit afterwards.’
‘I don’t understand the problem,’ the woman says, still smiling, eyebrows arched. ‘You want to remember your dreams again?’
I shake my head. ‘No. No. I just don’t want the physical aftereffects. Can you fix that?’
The assistant pauses, her eyes wide and unnervingly still. AIs don’t blink, but it’s weird with the rest of her being so realistic. ‘I could offer you an in-app upgrade with built in METs?’
I blink at her. ‘METs?’
‘Mood Enhancement Tweaks. They should help subdue the physical responses to your nightmares. As it’s an in-app purchase, I can offer you a discount as part of our Flash Sale. Today only.’ She grins and her teeth twinkle in the fluorescent lighting.
I hesitate. I really do want to fix this. Maybe Mum and Dad would give me another loan… no, I can’t ask them again. They’re too busy with Addie. I’ll pick up some extra shifts at the restaurant this week – I’ll even be more productive if I’m not so sleep-deprived. Which means more tips. It’ll pay for itself in the long-term. ‘Can you install it today as well?’
The assistant twitches her head in a single nod, almost like it’s an accident. ‘Of course, just sit in our waiting room and a Tech will be with you shortly.’
<Good morning Lexi. Daily schedule initiated. Time: 9am. Shift begins in two hours. Commuting time currently estimated at one hour.>
My eyes open as the voice reverberates in my head – the same voice as the woman in the shop, I realise for the first time. I rub my head. There must be a setting to change that.
I sit up and wait for the familiar vice to grip my stomach, the crushing weight on my chest, the shaking hands. But none of it comes. There’s just a dullness in my mind. Has the upgrade worked?
I get up, make my bed, then sit at the dining table for thirty minutes staring into space until it’s time to leave. I don’t feel hungry, so my cereal lies untouched and soggy in the bowl.
At work, I move around the restaurant, one table to the next, not even stopping for lunch. I feel like it’s going well. I’ve not spilled any drinks, forgotten any orders, nor argued with a customer.
Erin asks for a chat at the end of the day. She doesn’t look annoyed, so hopefully she won’t dock my pay this time. It’s been a while since I’ve had a performance review. Maybe I’m up for a promotion.
‘Hey Lexi. Some good work today. Looks like you got one of those Focus mods installed after all,’ she pauses, waits for my reaction, but continues when I say nothing. ‘Although maybe you could try a little harder with the customers, you know a smile here and there, a wee bit of enthusiasm about our menus. Just to show you’re human.’
I hesitate. ‘What do you mean?’
Erin places a hand on my arm. ‘It’s just our clients expect a warmer welcome,’ she says. ‘If they only wanted efficiency, they’d go to one of the AI-run places, you know? We need to keep our authenticity, so they can come here and be free from,’ she waves her hand around. ‘All that emotionless tech and machinery. Do you understand?’
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t realise. I’ll try harder tomorrow.’
Erin beams, almost like the woman in the Cranium shop. ‘Wonderful, I’m happy to give you extra shifts, as long as you can keep that positive attitude all the time, okay?’
‘Understood.’ I force a smile, though it feels weirdly wrong. Maybe I’m just having an off day.
Over the next few days, I find myself falling into a familiar routine: sleep, eat, work, repeat. But there are, at least, no nightmares. No constant exhaustion. No anxiety. Like the CensorChip is finally working, and this is my new normal. My “better tomorrow”.
Another week passes and Erin pulls me up again after my shift. ‘Look…’ she begins. ‘I really tried to give you a chance, but this just isn’t working. We’ve had some comments about your demeanour, and well, I think you should take some time off, find a way to rebalance or something. Maybe Cranium could have something that would help? You’ve got that CensorChip, right?’ She points at my head, and I put a hand to it.
I’m about to protest, to ask for another chance, but then I realise I don’t care. And I understand what she means. This week it’s just felt like I’m going through the motions, like I’m watching the world pass by without being a part of it. ‘I’ll try and get myself sorted out.’
‘I’m rooting for you!’ Erin says. ‘I’ve transferred your last salary, though I’ve cut your share of tips from this week, given everything. I’m sure you can understand.’
On my way home from the restaurant, I check my CensorChip settings. Everything says it’s working properly – even the new METs are fully activated.
I stay at home on my own for the next few days, scrolling social media and watching whatever TV shows are on. If anyone were to ask me what happens in each episode, I’d probably not be able to tell them. But it passes the time.
The nothingness soon becomes suffocating. Like someone has flicked a switch in my head and taken away the very parts of me that make me a person. I’ve become robotic, monotonous. Just like the assistant in the shop.
I have to try to fix it.
The same shop assistant greets me with the same toothy smile and the same cloying voice that sounds like she’s making a train announcement.
‘What seems to be the problem today?’
‘I don’t feel anything.’
The assistant smiles. ‘Is that not what you wanted?’
‘No.’ I avert her gaze. ‘I don’t want the negative physical effects, but… I still want to feel something.’
‘I’m afraid I don’t understand. The METs deal with the physical effects of anxiety while filtering traumatic experiences.’ She tilts her head a little so that the smile becomes a bit less symmetrical. ‘If you wish to uninstall, I can arrange that,’ she continues. ‘However, it would come at an additional administration cost, and I’d be unable to issue a refund as you purchased this as part of our Flash Sale. It was all in the terms and conditions you signed.’
I don’t want to go back to the constant anxiety, the cold sweats, the feeling that it will only take one bad day for me to snap. ‘Can’t you just adjust it?’
The woman shakes her head. ‘I’m afraid the METs we installed are the most updated versions in production. Any issues you might be experiencing are likely to be host-related rather than manufacturing defects. We can try installing another in-app modification,’ she pauses and taps away on the tablet in front of her. ‘Perhaps the SAD one might meet your requirements?’
I take a deep breath. ‘SAD?’
‘Serotonin Activating Diffuser. The chemical to induce happiness. Never spend another day sad with this new creation from Cranium – enhancing the mind today for a better tomorrow,’ the assistant reads then straightens her back with a click.
‘And if you install that, it’ll fix this?’
She nods. ‘It will certainly help you to feel something.’
‘Fine. Install it.’
‘Delightful. How will you be paying today?’
I tap my wristband and open my account, ignoring the minus symbol in front of my bank balance. ‘Do you take credit?’
‘Of course! Just fill out this form, sign here, here, and here, and you’ll be all set for installation. A technician will be with you shortly. Thank you for your custom today.’
As I leave the shop, my wristband buzzes. <Mum> flashes across my arm-screen. Smiling vaguely, I swipe it away. For the rest of the night, I walk from street to street until the sun rises and bathes the city in a beautiful orange hue. Energy pulses through me like an overcharged battery. I feel great. I stop for breakfast at a café. A real human waiter greets me, brings me coffee with a smile. I smile back. What a lovely day. The wristband buzzes again. I answer.
‘Lexi?’ Mum is crying. Why is she crying? There’s nothing to be sad about. ‘I’ve been trying to call you. Why haven’t you been picking up?’ There’s a pause, and she sniffs, her voice breaking. ‘Are you there, Lexi? I can hear you.’
It’s nice and warm in the café, and the way the sunbeams shine in through the windows makes the space look almost heaven-like.
Mum continues, her voice getting higher pitched. ‘It’s Addie, she’s… oh Lexi she’s had a bad episode, we’re at the hospital. The doctors have said… well, you just need to come to the hospital. We need to be together. Please—’
I hang up and sip my coffee. I think of Addie. Yes, my sister. We had a lovely childhood. Inseparable. How happy we were. How happy I feel now.
I turn my wristband on silent mode and walk out of the café without finishing my food, leaving double the tip necessary. All I want to do is explore this bustling beautiful city.
When a dog crosses my path, I bend down and wait for it to greet me, tongue lolled, tail wagging. Its fur is as soft as silk. I scratch it between the ears and speak to it in a squeaky voice. Its owner chuckles and says, ‘lovely morning, isn’t it?’
I look up at him, noticing a shaved patch behind his ear, a small lump just visible. ‘Yes,’ I nod enthusiastically. ‘It really is.’ Waving to the owner and the dog, I stride off in no particular direction.
The droning hum of busy traffic soon becomes soothing, as if the passing vehicles are like waves ebbing back and forth on a beach. Maybe I’ll go to the seaside soon, walk into the water, and keep going, until all that surrounds me is empty blue. A car to my left makes a loud noise, and I stop. I’m in the middle of the road, traffic halted all around. The car is just inches away, and the man in the driver’s seat waves his hand, shouts something, but the traffic noise drowns it out. I offer a friendly wave back. More noises come from the cars behind him, together in a beautiful symphony. I carry on across the road, thinking about how nice it is of them to stop to say hello.
When I reach my favourite park, I inhale the scent of ground coffee from a van nearby. I feel like singing, dancing, like lying in the sun and soaking up the warm summer air. My hand jumps suddenly to my wrist, as if I know I need to check my schedule, my messages. But it’s a passing thought.
As it grows dark, I check the time. I’ve been walking all day. A dozen missed calls and several messages pop up. Frowning, I open the first.
<Lexi. Please answer. We need to talk. It’s not looking good. I can’t do this without you. Love you. Mum.>
I ignore it.
More messages flood in, but they don’t make sense. It doesn’t feel like it matters anyway. All that matters is that I keep living in this moment. If I stop, I might lose this wonderful feeling. I can’t let that happen.
<Lexi. I can’t believe I’m doing this over text, but what am I supposed to do if you won’t answer? Addie died last night. I’m so sorry. The doctors couldn’t do anything, not without insurance. We were with her. It was peaceful. Just call me or come home, or anything, please.>
<Lexi, you can’t just block us out. This isn’t okay. None of this is. I’m coming over.>
<I’m sorry I left that voice message earlier. I just didn’t know what to do when you weren’t home, this is all so hard. I’m not angry, I’m just sad. Are you sad? Your Dad and I are really worried about you. Where are you? I’ll try coming over again tonight. Love you. Mum.>
<The landlord let us into your flat this morning and it doesn’t look like you’ve been there for a while. Please call me. Even if just to tell me where you are. Please.>
<The funeral is on Thursday. I know this is very difficult, but you need to come home. You need to be with us. We need you with us.>
<I don’t know how to help. Tell me how I can help. I feel lost without you.>
<You missed the funeral. Everyone was asking where you were, we’re so worried. I’ve called the police. They’ve opened a missing person case. Please reach out. Please come home. Please, Lexi. We love you. Mum.>
As I read the last message, my wristband flashes red. I’m in the park again, sitting on my favourite bench by the pond. I feel like I’ve been here forever, watching as the sun rises and falls. I used to visit here with my parents and Addie when we were kids, feeding grain to the birds in the winter, watching ducklings grow in the spring, collecting fallen feathers from the edge of the water and pressing them into books.
It’s a calming place. And it’s mine now. Everything glitters with gold dust. Every sound flows in my mind with the most beautiful melody.
My wristband flashes and vibrates again. But I don’t want it anymore. It’s only a distraction. So, I take it off and throw it into the pond.
Everything feels just right. No hint of anxiety, no crushing sense of dread. Just pure, uncensored euphoria.
© (Un)censored, 2022, Lyndsey Croal
Lyndsey is an Edinburgh-based writer of speculative and strange fiction. She is a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Awardee, and her work has been published in several anthologies and magazines, including Mslexia's Best Women's Short Fiction 2021. Her debut audio drama 'Daughter of Fire and Water' was produced by Alternative Stories & Fake Realities in 2021 and is currently on the 2022 British Fantasy Awards shortlist for Best Audio. Find her on Twitter as @writerlynds or via www.lyndseycroal.co.uk.