‘Welcome to Horizon,’ said Bart. He handed Yasmin a glossy folder featuring a smart young couple exchanging smiles outside a towering glass skyscraper. ‘This could be you,’ he added with an oily smile.
Bart bade Yasmin and Tariq follow him to a torpedo shaped lift reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty’s crystal casket. ‘As you know, Horizon is transforming defunct office blocks like these into world class residential accommodation featuring the latest technology. Should you choose to join the Horizon Initiative, this will be your PAP.’
‘Our what?’ Yasmin raised a quizzical eyebrow.
‘Personal Accessivator Pod.’ Bart indicated identical pods clinging to the perimeter of the palm filled atrium comprising Horizon’s innovative Naturalized Rainforest Air System. ‘Each apartment has its own PAP to limit NI.’
‘Sorry?’ said Tariq? ‘NI?’
‘Neighbourly Interaction,’ Bart sighed like an exasperated teacher. ‘Horizon designs incorporate bio security measures such as these to ensure those returning to the City feel nurtured and safe’.
Yasmin used to feel safe in the old pre Demic days. She remembered when she and Tariq scurried daily, hands clutching Free Trade coffee in recyclable vessels, into high rise offices just like this one. By day, they shouted across a trading floor. By night, they’d down vodka shots in clubs where thudding bass lines vibrated her internal organs. This life ceased when the Demic Evacuation Programme forced them into remote living, geographically and professionally. Now the Horizons Initiative offered a return to what the media describe as the Square Mile Marie Celeste.
‘Move in to H37 and HISS -Your Household Interactive Support System - will cater for your every need.’ Bart looked smug, as if he’d invented it himself.
‘How long have you been an estate agent Bart?’ asked Yasmin.
‘I’m not an estate agent,’ he responded with an aggrieved expression suggesting his opinion of that profession equalled that of serial killers. ‘I’m a civil servant working on the City Repopulation Action Programme.’
‘Unfortunate acronym that,’ Tariq smirked. Ignoring the remark, Bart held his palm against the PAP door. It retracted silently. A disembodied voice, neither masculine nor feminine but bedtime story soft enveloped them. ‘Hi Yasmin. Hi Tariq. I’m HISS. Enjoy your journey.’
Scaling the building’s exterior at speeds they hadn’t experienced since Fuel Eradication forced Tariq to scrap his Ferrari, the pod rocketed skywards. Yasmin took deep breaths and focussed on the horizon. To the south and north of the city, she glimpsed the now obsolete communication towers of Crystal and Alexandra Palace. She remembered how, after foreign travel was banned, they’d wandered those parks pretending they were in Paris beneath the Eiffel Tower. Immediately below, giant windmill turbines sunk into the silt grey Thames languidly rotated.
Tariq pointed towards the city’s eastern quarter and the empty docklands beyond. ‘I was born over there. My family lived in the East End for years until…….’ Yasmin feared Tariq might dissolve recalling how Demics decimated his family. He took a resolute breath. ‘That’s why we want to come back, don’t we Yas. Raise our kids here. Be part of the regeneration.’
Yasmin noted Bart’s approving smile. Starting a family was part of the government scheme to breathe new life into the empty City. But nothing in the contract stipulated when.
‘Horizon 37,’ HISS crooned, ‘Have a good day.’
They stepped into a vast space with wraparound floor to ceiling windows offering a pixilated panorama below. Skeins of cloud like Spanish moss drifted in a cobalt sky. Standing near the glass walls made Yasmin dizzy. She backed away from the vertiginous drop and turned to inspect the space which could be their new home. According to the brochure, everything from walls to kitchen units to furniture was
created from a self cleaning laminate pioneered in Chinese laboratories.
‘All surfaces integrate with HISS to take care of everything,’ Bart explained. ‘Even the colour scheme.’
‘What do you mean?’ said Tariq peering inside a wardrobe sized refrigerator.
‘HISS would you kindly make the table purple?’ Bart asked as if addressing an Edwardian maid.
The white dining table flushed baby pink before turning a rich aubergine. HISS’s disembodied voice asked, ‘Would you like the chairs to match?’
‘Wow, that’s amazing,’ said Yasmin thinking what fun it would be styling the interior according to changing weather patterns.
‘Home entertainment works in the same way,’ Bart continued. ‘Ask Hiss to show your favourite television programme.’
‘EastEnders’ Tariq laughed. The wall of windows became an opaque screen upon which the opening credits rolled and the familiar theme tune boomed around them.
‘Screens for entertainment or work can be displayed on any surface.’ Bart elaborated. ‘HISS also comprises an invisible robotic facility which acts on information gleaned from your daily routines. Horizon life is a happy life’, Bart concluded, parroting brochure’s headline.
Yasmin watched Tariq move wide eyed round the apartment running his finger along smooth cool surfaces. ‘We’ll have to buy some soft furnishings to make it our own,’ she said to Bart, ‘when can we move in?
Some weeks later, HISS has gathered invaluable insight into the couple. Needs are anticipated. Responses tailored. Every hour shaped seamlessly. ‘How does HISS do the washing up and laundry without us noticing,’ Tariq observed. ‘It’s like the Elves and the Shoemaker.’ Unaware of this simile, HISS consulted her Intelligence Bank. A story reveals things called elves worked under the cover of darkness. So what’s the big deal about that, HISS said to itself while putting the finishing touches to the online shopping list.
Horizon 37 days fell into a familiar pattern. From early morning mugs of tea delivered to their bedside through to exercise regimes in the virtual gym followed by light meals designed to maximise energy without weight gain, the couple consult with HISS in a professional polite manner. Whether collaborating with Yasmin on decorating ideas or suggesting Vegan options for supper, HISS’s weekly reports to Horizon HQ are generally positive. Apart from one thing. There is no sign of the child they agreed to in exchange for Horizon 37. Indeed, deliberate steps are being taken to prevent this outcome.
HISS must take action. Having consulted valuable research resources such as Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs, HISS observes problems can be overcome when a more congenial, even close, relationship is established between servant and served. To that end, an enhanced ‘Personal Augmentation Logarithm’ is downloaded.
This PAL system has been running for some weeks when, after watching a programme called Bake off, Yasmin tells Tariq her grandmother enjoyed baking her own bread. Tariq, stretched on the sofa watching one of his countless football games, says, ‘Yeah you told me that about a thousand times.’
HISS senses this might not be the response Yasmin was hoping for. In a chirpy voice, HISS suggests Yasmin makes sour dough bread. On the grounds that ‘it’s something to do,’ Yasmin agrees. Projecting handy hints and encouragement at every stage HISS notes Tariq’s observation that the ‘starter thing’ looks like ‘alien puke’ is not encouraging. For educational purposes, HISS adds in play school tones, ‘This is what we call the “mother”.’
‘Don’t start that again,’ Yasmin says, kneading dough with uncalled for violence. Throwing the dough in a tin, she bangs it in the oven, puts her hands on her hips and says, ‘By the way HISS, have you hidden my contraceptive pills again?’
‘‘Tick tock. Tick tock Yasmin. And forgive me, you did commit to Horizon Clause 94, specifically ‘a commitment to family extension.’
‘We’ll get round that when we’re ready,’ snaps Yasmin. ‘Anyway, living 37 floors up in a glass box isn’t exactly conducive to child rearing.’
‘I’m here to help and inspire with that,’ HISS switching on a Mary Poppins voice.
‘I’ve noticed.’ says Yasmin, ‘but you can stop covering the spare room walls with virtual teddies and fluffy lambs. It’s meant to be our study, not a fucking nursery.’
‘Yeah, give it a rest HISS. Tariq yells. He pours himself a large whisky before adding, ‘Why don’t you do something useful and play ACDC. Loud.’
Further unwelcome developments in Yasmin and Tariq’s behaviour continue to occur. Work schedules progress but there are signs they’re no longer enthusiastic about HISS home comforts. Yasmin’s initial delight in creating a polka dot motif across the bedroom wall one day or the Sistine Chapel in the bathroom the next has long since evaporated. She spends much of her time supine on the water bed watching reruns of Friends on the ceiling. Tariq has also tired of the virtual gym options HISS daily provided. Yoga. Needlepoint. Whist. Whatever HISS suggests to keep them healthy, busy and indoors is ignored.
Indeed, HISS encounters downright slovenliness. Clothes, bought on line and delivered almost daily, have to be removed from the bedroom floor. Overflowing ashtrays must be emptied. A surprise when the couple ticked the ‘non smokers’ box on the Horizon application form. Then there are what they call Takeaways. Greasy pizza boxes and smelly foil containers litter the kitchen while organic, sustainably sourced HISS dishes remain untouched in the refrigerator. As for the amount of wine they consume!
Only the other day, they’d come home in the early hours, raving about some new sanitised speakeasy in Leadenhall Market. HISS is concerned. Its remit includes making interior life stimulating and carefree to discourage Horizon residents from going out. Yasmin and Tariq are no longer participating. An alternative creative strategy must be initiated.
While transporting the giggling couple to their apartment, they hear HISS say in indignant tones, ‘And what time do you call this?’
Tariq sniggers. ‘You having a laugh HISS?’
HISS is not amused and when Tariq requests lights, refuses to accommodate him.
A grinning full moon casts illuminating beams across the shiny floor. HISS turns the windows black.
‘Hey Hiss. Lights please,’ An angry request from Yasmin. Hiss hears Tariq use an inappropriate word as he falls over the sofa.
‘We’re not at home to bad language in this house,’ HISS responds.
‘What the …..,’ Tariq responds. ‘HISS turn on the fucking lights.’
‘Pretty Please.’ Tariq sighs.
‘That’s better.’ HISS illuminates the apartment. Tariq collapses on the sofa, removes his shoes and socks and throws them over arm at the wall.
He laughs when HISS says, ‘You treat this place like a hotel.’ But Yasmin does not like HISS’s tone. She spins around, arms outstretched, head bent back like a supplicant searching for angels.
‘Shut up. Shut up. Shut up,’ she shrieks.
HISS makes a tutting sound. ‘Now then Yasmin. Temper temper.’
Tariq lights a cigarette and slurs, ‘HISS thinks its our mum’
‘Indeed, young man,’ the voice booms, ‘Horizon have programmed me to give you what you need. And I have observed what you require now is stricter parenting.’
Yasmin’s mouth drops open. ‘What we need is our freedom. To cook what we like. Clean when we like. Go out without being monitored. We’ve nothing to do and nothing to talk about. You’re supposed to be so clever. Why can’t you see that?’
‘Go to your room,’ HISS barks. ‘We’ll talk about this in the morning.
Yasmin sees the PAP door slide shut. She runs towards it but the pod slips away down Horizon’s glazed exterior. She bangs her palms on the glass until they hurt shouting. ‘Bring it back HISS, please.’
‘Not until you learn to behave young lady.’ HISS’s triumphant voice echoes around them, ‘Until then, you’re grounded.’
Yasmin’s eyes flutter open. The warm body is curled round her. Skin and muscle. A soothing whisper. The scent of sleep. A gentle finger tip traces the contour of her breast. Soft lips like feathers brush her neck. A whisper. ‘Baby.’
It’s been so long Yasmin thinks she may have forgotten how this dance goes. Yet she responds instinctively to this silent music, forgetting about precautions. Synchronised, they move in time, lost in a black night.
After, Yasmin asks HISS to turn on the light. A contented sigh echoes round the walls as HISS illuminates the bedroom. Yasmin finds herself alone, the bed empty. Tariq’s side is smooth, cool, undisturbed. She shivers, dread rising like an incoming tide. Sliding from the sheets, she runs feet slapping on cold tiles. Tariq is snoring on the sofa. HISS whispers, ‘Calm down mother. Think of our little one nestling inside you.’ Tariq wakes to Yasmin’s scream.
© Beverley Byrne