There is no only me today, nor will there be tomorrow
Once there was naught but I, it led the world to sorrow
A world of islands ‘fore they came, and helped us all to see
that you and I are truly one, the world is border free
Reciting the morning hymn to the Union, even though it is also aimed at myself, leaves me with the same discomfort as always. I have felt it for as long as I remember, and have grown so used to it now that it wouldn’t feel right saying it without that slight tingle of unease. When I was younger I used to try to get out of reciting it, moving my lips in sync with the bodies around me, but not uttering the words and therefore keeping my voice from joining the choir. The symbolism gave me a small sense of perverted joy that I was too young to fully understand, at how I appeared to be part of the group joined together in speech, but in reality stood out, in my silence. It became a way for me to calm those feelings I didn’t comprehend, placate them with an unknown act of rebellion. Until that time when the reciting happened in too small a group for my silence to go unnoticed, and my apartness was quelled. Much to the embarrassment of my then Practical Family. I still remember my frustration at the person who had birthed me, when I saw the disappointment in her eyes as the events were related to her. Much later I understood that I got so angry because I saw her disappointment being aimed equally at herself, and at those who shared our home and routines, as it was being aimed at me.
“It’s only me!” I wanted to scream. “You have no role in this, I did this myself!”
But instead I promised to say the words out loud from that day on. And I settled with the uneasiness, which lingers still as I sit back down to keep working. My fingers connect to the keys before me, only milliseconds on each one, but still there is constantly a part of me touching the computer, and together we create code. I am one of many coders serving the Union and it is impossible in the end product for me to point to what I have created, and what someone else has. If a mistake gets made, it soon gets rectified, without fault and without blame. I try not to take more pleasure in creating new code than I do in controlling existing code, but it is a struggle. Once, in the early days of working here, I wrote a solution that I was actually so proud of that I couldn’t help but ask if my colleagues had noticed it. Three of us were standing by the coffee machine discussing the taste of its output, when I brought it up.
“Did any of you see this morning’s latest array on project RF7723c?”
“I did!” one of them enthused, and I felt the pride grow inside me.
“I haven’t seen it”, said the other.
“Check it out”, prompted the first. “It is a nice example as to why we are such a good code group.”
At those last words I felt another emotion take the place of pride, and I left them to return to my desk, trying to keep the resentment from showing. I felt it had been my solution, and that it had nothing to do with the rest of the group, and so the idea that it gave all of them credit irked me. I knew these feelings were misplaced, I had like everyone else recited the truth upon joining the coders; that a chain is no stronger than its weakest link. I too believed in team work, in pooling together to reach goals an individual could not hope to aspire to on their own. But still I felt the need for affirmation on a personal level. More so, it seemed, than everyone else. I have not worked as hard to think up clever solutions since then. But of course, clever solutions keep being created, and I am continuously congratulated on being part of making them happen, however little I want to be.
As I reach the end of my shift I stop in the middle of a sentence, knowing it won’t be there to pick up when I return since whoever takes my place when I leave will carry it on. I now feel nothing about this, whereas I used to have to balance feelings of worry about not measuring up and about the other person messing up my code. I know the feeling I am supposed to have is confidence in both myself and the others that share this desk, as we together make up one coder resource, and I should feel a certain safety in our number. But I feel nothing. I check to make sure the desk looks the way it did when I arrived, and I put the picture of Lect, my Living Partner, in my pocket as I leave. It is unusual to keep pictures, and I had to argue to even get to take it in the first place. Still I can’t bring myself to not display it during my working hours.
In the evenings at home, we have the joint routine of reading. I am, as so often, leaning on Lect, absentmindedly letting my fingers connect to whatever bare skin is available, which has turned out to be part of a leg, exposed by pants sliding up when cuddled together on a sofa. I enjoy our mutual silence, and from time to time I stop reading and pretend there is only us in the world. Once, during our first year as Living Partners, I told Lect this. It sparked an argument.
“You mustn’t say such things!” was the upset reaction I got to what I had earnestly meant to be a declaration of love. “We are but one of many, no more valuable, no less, but endlessly so.”
At the recitation of the hymn sung when two or more people declare they are becoming Living Partners I recoiled, for a moment perceiving Lect as someone I couldn’t possibly love. It terrified me, and I kept talking, more for my own sake than for Lect’s, to find my way back to a special place I felt I was about to lose.
“But don’t you think what we have is unique?” I asked, unable to keep my voice from sounding accusatory. “I love you, I don’t want to live with anyone else. What we have is special.”
I kept pressing on, and my doing so made Lect more uncomfortable, and after a while I realized that I had to back track, the same way I had done with the morning hymn when I was younger, in order to keep from ruining everything. Since then I never single our relationship out, nor do I voice how special it really is to me. I agree to it being but another living partnership, and the picture I managed to coax my way into taking stays hidden, by Lect undoubtedly forgotten. I return to my reading, but get only as far as two sentences before Lect moves from underneath my fingers, and the connection is lost. I pout and make a disgruntled noise at this, which earns me a laugh, and then a look which I know to mean that we will shortly become one in a manner much more carnal than uniting in silent contemplation on a sofa.
The next day I’ve taken up where the one before me left off, reviewing and rewriting code, noticing that some of my work from the day before has been rewritten, but that most of it remains. I can’t help but feel a sense of victory from this, and as I go to get my first cup of coffee I don’t instantly return to my desk as usual, but rather joyfully join in the discussion on its taste instead. One of the others changes the topic with a question.
“What did you think of my take on the issue with project KU8009?”
It’s met by silence, and I can sense my other two colleagues get uncomfortable at the blunt, self-centered question. I sip my coffee, intrigued, and the colleague who asked the question presses on. I realize I don’t recognize her, and figure she must be new.
“It was a pretty good solve, don’t you think?” she smiles, raising her paper cup in what looks like a toast. “It took some work, but I’m really pleased with the result.”
The other two avoid meeting her eyes, but she doesn’t seem bothered. Nor does she seem to notice when they both excuse themselves and return to their desks. Instead she refills her cup and looks at me with a cheerful smile, and I think I can see some insolence in her eyes.
“I saw it”, I acknowledge, offering a half smile to her full one. “You did good.”
“Thank you!” she exclaims poignantly and my smile grows.
We stand in silence drinking our coffee, and I even refill my cup in order to remain a while longer, but then she moves to return to her desk. I nod back as she nods goodbye, and go back to work myself. I don’t see her for the rest of the day, nor the rest of the week, even though I go for coffee more often than usual.
The upcoming week however, as I am leaving the building, she catches up to me, surprising me completely by grabbing a hold of my arm to catch my attention. When I see it’s her I smile.
“The master coder!” I greet, which she laughs at.
“Indeed! Or Iuris, which I also am known as.”
She holds out her hand and I take it.
“Pleased to meet you. I’m Sui.”
“The pleasure is mine” she replies, and I can’t hide my surprise at her phrasing.
She sees this, and adds with a conspiratorial smile and a theatrical glance over her shoulder.
“’Ours’, I mean. The pleasure is obviously ours, as we are all one.”
I smile at the joking tone in her voice, realizing I haven’t heard anyone use the individualistic greeting for years.
“Obviously”, I agree.
I don’t know what more to expect, so I’m about to wish her a good evening, but before I get a chance to she leans in closer, still conspiratorial, and I find that I’m enjoying it.
“Do you wanna go somewhere for a drink?” she asks.
“Sure”, I manage, caught a little of guard. “There’s a Drinkers Gathering just around the corner from here.”
“I know some place much better”, she says, and I wonder what other options to drink there are, but want nothing more than to find out.
Iuri leads me to an anonymous looking venue that is similar to that of a Drinkers Gathering, but instead of rows of tables where everyone joins together there are lots of little booths, with two to four seats in each. Here and there people are sitting, some even on their own, with a glass in front of them. I’ve never seen anything like it, and Iuri grins at my wonder.
“Sometimes you just want to be on your own”, she comments, before leaving me in a booth to go get drinks for us.
I try to maneuver the mixed feelings of guilt and recognition her parting words induce in me, and when she gets back I take a deep gulp of the beer. It helps.
“I get the feeling you’re not like the others”, she smiles when I put my drink back down on the table, already a third gone.
“I’m unsure of what you mean”, I reply, a little warily. “We’re all the same.”
“Reciting Union propaganda now, are we?”
However jokingly her comment is made to sound, I can’t help but get more uncomfortable, and I lean back in my chair. Her smile disappears and instead she suddenly looks apologetic.
“I’m sorry”, she urges. “I don’t mean to scare you. It’s just…”
She pauses, and I find myself leaning back onto the table.
“I feel like you’re also questioning the way of the world”, she continues, more carefully now. “That this whole set up, where each individual practically gets eradicated, is hurting us. I mean, of course there’s strength in numbers, and of course we are all of equal value. But I can’t help but feel that we are all also unique. That each one of us is special, and deserves to be acknowledged as such.”
She quietens and takes her first sip from her drink, not looking at me. I clear my throat to get her eyes on me as I respond.
“I think you’re right.”
Iuri and I take to having weekly drinks. It goes unnoticed by everyone else, as I time it with when Lect is volunteering at the hospital after work, and I am already known among the rest of those I socialize with – my previous Practical Family, certain colleagues – to spend many evenings at home on my own, reading. Iuri and I speak of ourselves, our thoughts and ideas, our accomplishments at work. I talk a lot about my love for Lect, and how I have to hide it when really my whole body wants to shout it out to the world, about how I want to brag about our uniqueness. Iuri understands, and agrees.
“It’s the same with work”, she muses. “I want to excel at what I do. I want to be challenged and work hard, for the good of everyone, of course, but most of all I want to work hard for ME. I know for a fact not everyone is as good as I am at coding. I don’t want the credit of my hard work to fall to that dope on the third floor, who never does anything of value.”
We drink to what we think are reasonable demands, then we part ways and spend the week until next time pretending we are fine with the way things are.
One day, halfway through our second glass, Iuri tells me someone is joining us for a drink. I have a moment’s panic, thinking it has all been some sort of setup, trying to think back on what I’ve been saying these past few months. But I quickly calm myself, reminding myself that most often it is Iuri that does the talking, even if what she says could have been directly picked from my mind.
“It’s a guy I know from my last place of work”, she explains. “He thinks like we do. And he wants to do something about it.”
“Like what?” I ask, but before she has time to reply someone sits down next to us.
Olum turns out to be even better at quoting my thoughts back to me than Iuri, and the three of us remain until they’re closing, and for the first time I have to tell Lect about my new friend from work, since I come home way after midnight, when I am usually asleep. Next week, Olum joins us from the start, and I have to really struggle to leave in time to be home before Lect. I don’t know why I’m so eager to keep my ventures hidden, but I do.
“I have this feeling”, Olum starts, during our fourth or fifth meeting. “That there are loads more of us out there. That they’re just scared of speaking up.”
“Probably”, I agree, signaling for another round of drinks. “But how would we reach them? The Union has us reciting hymns until we’re brain washed, and if you bring up individuals as a concept people freak out.”
“We need to poke a hole in the armor of the Union”, Iuri smiles, and quiets as the full glasses are being placed on our table. “Then everyone would know they don’t actually have the strength to make people think and feel according to their wishes.”
“And how do we do that?” I ask.
“I have an idea”, says Olum.
“What would you do if something happened to me?” I ask, putting my jacket on, officially to go for an evening walk, but in reality to join Iuri and Olum.
Lect looks up from the book of the evening, with a confused expression.
“If I… I don’t know”, I continue. “If I died, or left you? Would you be upset?”
Lect gets up from the sofa and walks over to me, amused at what seems to be preposterous.
“Of course I would. Why would you ever think I wouldn’t be?”
I want to bring back earlier words of me not being allowed to think we’re special, or to point out that living partnerships are quite easy to come by, and that I haven’t dared say ‘I love you’ since that time we fought, but I shrug instead.
“I’ll see you later”, I smile, and we kiss.
I try to make it last longer than usual, and Lect breaks it first, ushering me out the door.
“The sooner you go for your walk, the sooner you’ll be back. We love and we are loved.”
Olum has taken full responsibility of the planning. Iuri and I are to follow his instructions, and the result will be that all the people who head to the late night shift at the Education Unity, coming up out of the subway station at the North-East Union Square, will be met by a billboard previously showcasing the educational hymn, now questioning the Union in a mock verse we’ve written together with the help of many beers. The reason that we target these specific workers, during this specific shift, is that according to Olum it holds the chance of reaching as many likeminded people as possible. Both Iuri and Olum used to work at the Education Unity, and so I trust his judgement. We are to climb the billboard, cover it in our version of the hymn that we have painted on a huge sheet, then make our escape through the back alleys. At this time of night members of the Policing should be both scarce and elsewhere, Olum has reassured us. Yet we are halfway through getting our message in place when we hear an order to freeze. I instinctively obey, trying to think of ways of convincingly dismiss our drunken rhymes as harmless. But then Iuri darts into the night and without thinking my body reacts and I follow. A shot is fired and I hear someone take up chase. Iuri is fast and I struggle to keep up with her, my pulse and my already heavy breathing blocking out all other sounds around me. We get to the unlit back streets, and their darkness feels like it will save us. But that feeling shatters from another fired shot, and there is an explosion of pain I’ve never known in my side. I manage to run a few more steps after Iuri, biting down the scream and following her example by sinking down behind a garbage bin. She clamps one hand over my panting mouth, another over hers, and through the pain that’s ringing in my ears I think I can hear our chaser’s footsteps subsiding. Iuri seems to think so too, she removes her hands and starts getting back up on her feet.
“Get ready to run”, she hisses, and I realize she’s not noticed that I can’t.
I still want to scream, but somehow I manage to whisper instead.
“Can you tell Lect I love him?”
She mistakes my plea for misplaced worry, and replies in an annoyed voice as she takes a last hurried look around us.
“Tell him yourself.”
She runs, and I am left alone.