If it ain’t broke …
by Suzanne Conboy-Hill
Robert cast a functional eye over the stranger in the art room. ‘You got my lunch?’ he asked, not bothering with formalities.
‘No,’ said the stranger, ‘But I’ve got an offer.’ He was tall-ish, broad-ish and, Robert thought, social worker-ish. He was also artificial-ish but that passed Robert by for now.
‘My name is Artem and I’m from …’
‘An offer?’ Robert recognised the word but its meaning escaped him; and anyway he was hungry. You could starve here, he thought, and social workers would just fill in another buggersome form. Robert rolled buggersome around in his head and smiled.
Artem got the wrong idea. ‘Great! Here we go!’ he said, and started making clickety twiddling movements in the air with one hand. Robert was struggling with his oversized tongue, and a choice he couldn’t get a grip on, so he gave up. ‘Ok,’ he said. ‘Go where … ?’
The sound boxed Robert’s ears and made his eyes wobble. But not as much as his brain wobbled when he was able to focus again and take in the old fashioned room he hadn’t seen before. ‘Never take a lift with a stranger,’ he could almost hear his mother reminding him, ‘they’ll take you away to Mars.’ Well, he didn’t think Mars would look like someone’s front room with a big fat TV in it, but this wasn’t right. It definitely wasn’t right. Robert scrabbled for his phone with PC Tyler’s number in it for emergencies. Robert wasn’t too clear what ‘emergency’ actually meant, but he thought being taken off to definitely not right probably qualified.
‘What are you doing?’ said Artem, his eyebrows making a peculiar clicking sound as they beetled into a puzzled expression.
‘Telling the police about you!’ Robert shouted, punching at his mobile with uncooperatively stubby fingers. He stopped as a young woman ghosted into view; like she was there and not there, all at the same time. She was speaking into a big phone with an aerial on it. She looked right through Robert as though he wasn’t there either.
‘You’re sure it’s Down’s Syndrome?’ she said into the big phone. Her eyes went up and then down. Her other hand crept over her stomach, and her fingers made tiny stroking movements. Robert felt very sorry for her because she looked so sad. Like Lucy looked when she got to the day centre late and all the best biscuits had gone. Robert strained to hear what the woman said next, to see if he could make sense of it. But Artem chipped in and her voice chipped out, like the sound on his iPod when the battery went.
‘This is where your Mum decides what to do, and we can change what happens.’ The stranger was bright-eyed and the words were spilling out like beans from a can. ‘That is, you can change what happens. If you want her to say NO, ’ (he put a big stress on this word and his eyebrows disappeared off into his hairline, so Robert thought they looked like escaping spiders), ‘… you’ll be born, and you’ll be, well, just like you are now, you know …’ He waved a hand up and down, taking in Robert’s head and middle and feet. ‘But if you’d rather she said YES, she’ll have the termination and there’ll be no more suffering. What do you think?’
Robert stared at him, ‘Suff’ring? Who’s suff’ring?’
Artem stopped and looked hard at Robert, who was giving him his best glare. Then he dropped his voice and made it whispery; like people do when they’re saying something rude about someone just on the other side of the table. ‘Or we could … we’re not really licensed … hold on …’ Artem’s eyebrows scuttled right down towards his nose now; and he stuck one finger in his ear, ‘What difference could it possibly make? It’s not like he’s going to be Prime Minister or anything.’ A pause. ‘Yes well, who’s on the ground? Right. So who makes the decision? Right. Thank you.’ Artem removed his finger from his ear, and tick-tocked his eyebrows back into position. He leaned forward, like he was telling Robert a secret, ‘We could go in and fix the DNA so you’ll be normal, just like everyone else.’ He finished with a big, wide grin that quickly gathered itself back in, like when you pull a loose thread on a jumper.
Robert stared at him some more. What was he talking about? Say no to what? His head was full of confusion. Terminator? Hastervister bay-beee? Normal? He’d heard not normal before; usually from people who looked at him like you look at a slug on your lettuce. The stranger was still talking; blethering Robert thought, like they all do, and you’re supposed to keep up and it’s too friggin’ much!
Robert thought the stranger looked overly pleased with himself; like the social worker who got him a job washing up in that poxy restaurant. Well, he’d shown her who was in charge; broke two of their stupid plates, swore at a customer, and got himself sacked on his first shift. Robert recalled the swearing with satisfaction; ‘Bugger! Shit! Eff off!’ he shouted, feeling good about stringing it all together without tripping up. ‘You’re a …’ he groped for a suitable expletive, and remembered one from another movie, ‘Fuckwit!’ he announced, beaming triumphantly. ‘I AM normal! I’m an adult MAN and I’ve got running medals!’ Robert paused to arrange his face into another menacing glare, and finally noticed the velveteen sheen on the stranger’s face. ‘You’ve got skin like our old sofa!’ he told Artem, as if that made all the difference. ‘So you had better just get me home or PC Tyler will have your ass!’ Robert thought ‘have your ass’ sounded pretty tough. He stuck his chin out and placed his hands on his hips to add emphasis. The stranger seemed a bit phased. Haha! Gotcha, Mr Sofa Face, Robert thought to himself. Artem gurned back in a sort of involuntary reflection; then flicked his eyes up and down a couple of times. Finally, he said ‘So you don’t want me to nip in and fix the genetic fault; the extra chromosome on 21?’ He looked perplexed. ‘Are they all like you in 2012?’ he asked. ‘It’s just we’ve never been back this far before and there’s nobody with, you know, defects, after 2040.’
‘Who you calling a defex?’ Robert said, alternately screwing up and then widening his eyes. ‘I’m in a band. I’ve got drums! I bet you haven’t got drums. You’re the defex! Now you just get me home before I zap you with my secret ray gun!’
Artem stood, staring, and doing something peculiar with his mouth. Or his mouth was doing something peculiar with him; Robert couldn’t tell. Then his eyebrows crowded down over his nose again, he stuck his finger in his ear, and …
WHOOOF. They were back in the art room where Artem had found him, and Artem was holding out an electronic pad with a screen on it that read, ‘TimeFix beta test 21.09.2413.12.30 universal standard time: AI ArtemInterceptor.v4. Outcome: subject withdrawal.’ Robert made a large thumb print on it, with a big flourish because he liked signing things. Then he made a second, smeary one, for emphasis.
‘So, er – goodbye then,’ Artem said. ‘TimeFix assures you of its best service at all times and, well, we hope you have a good life.’
‘Live long and prosper!’ Robert waggled his fingers in the air and slapped an imaginary communicator on his chest. There was another WHOOOF and Artem vanished. Robert put his hands on his hips and shook his head – what could you do? He found a black marker pen, pulled off the cap, remembered about not licking the end, then drew a picture of the stranger and copied ‘TERMINATOR’ onto it from a poster on the wall. He stuck it up next to the one of Arnie, and saluted like he’d seen in army films. ‘Bastud killer robots!’ he swore at it, amiably, ‘Wait till Dr Who finds out about you, then you’ll stop your messing!’
(c) suzanne conboy-hill 2012. You may share but not sell, alter, substantially extract, or claim as your own.
Also on Ether Books as a free download for smartphones