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One

Sinéad O'Hart normally spends her time writing stories for children and young people, but occasionally she lets her dark side out with a twisty story for grown-ups. She likes medieval stuff, books, and tea, and blogs about reading and writing at http://sjohart.wordpress.com. A longlisted author in the 2013 Irish Writers' Centre Novel Fair competition with her Young Adult novel 'Tider', she's currently at work on a trilogy for children. Her work can be found in 'The Bohemyth', ‘Number Eleven Magazine’, 'Synaesthesia Magazine,' 'wordlegs', and 'The Looking Glass Magazine'. Thoughts on the writing of 'One': The ideas of overpopulation and pressure on dwindling resources play on my mind a lot, and I've written several short stories, including this one, about that topic. I enjoyed writing 'One' from the point of view of the child who can't imagine her own doom until it's too late; I feel there's a deep metaphor in there, somewhere...
I knew something wasn't right the morning I heard my mother crying in the bathroom. The thin walls of our seventieth-floor apartment did little to muffle the noise, and it sounded wrong enough to make me pause, mid-stretch. I'd never known her to cry before, not even when it had come time for her parents to be Decommissioned.
"Nesta?" I heard my father mutter. "What is it?"
She couldn't answer.
"You'll have to hurry up in there," snapped Dad. "Other people need to use the bathroom, you know." By "other people," of course, he meant himself. Whether or not I needed to pee was irrelevant. As it happened, I did, but I was used to waiting past my turn.
"Berten, I..." began my mother. "I'm..." Her weeping began again. I gave up listening, bored. I had plenty to do before school, including reconstituting my breakfast and making sure my learning slab was fully charged. I folded my need to use the bathroom into a separate compartment in my brain; I'd attend to it when I could. I hopped out of bed and began to unstrap my sleepsuit.
"Unubert!" The sound of my father's voice made me jump. What did he want me for? It wasn't even seven a.m. I couldn't have irritated him already.
"Daughter!" he shouted again. This must be serious. I pulled my straps tight again and slid my door open. I peeped out to see him standing in the doorway of his and Mum's cubicle, red in the face. Quickly, I dropped my eyes in case he thought I'd been looking at him.
"Father?" I tried to sound respectful.
"You will need to walk yourself to the flot-stop this morning," he told me. "Your mother is unwell, and I am already late for work."
"Fine," I nodded. Before I'd even answered him, he'd stepped back inside. I unstrapped, dressed, and flew to the chute so fast that I was already at the flot-stop before I noticed I was hungry. So much for breakfast.
"Maybe she's received notice of early Decom?" suggested Unimushu, my best friend, at lunchtime.
"Maybe," I agreed, thoughtfully. Mushu'd very kindly given me some of his lunch, and I busied myself adding it to my Abdo-Port as he continued.
"If she's sick, they'll want to take her early. Depending on how bad she is, of course."
The moistened mush slid slowly towards my gut, and I began to feel a bit better. I made a mental note never to skip breakfast again.
"No point in asking Dad," I said. "I guess I'll just have to wait until she tells me herself. Or until she's taken, of course."
"I wonder if your Dad will pair again?" wondered Mushu, aloud. I snorted at the idea.
"Why would he bother?" I said. "He's had his child. Whether my mother lives or not, he has me. He doesn't need another pairing."
"True," replied Mushu, blushing at his own stupidity. "I just wondered if--you know. He might be lonely, or something."
We laughed so loudly that the Principal's face flashed to life on our EduScreen, telling us in no uncertain terms to keep it down. People all around us were trying to feed, we were told. Have some respect. Abashed, we apologized.
Mushu's words stuck in my brain all day, though.
The flot hovered a little higher than I'd like as it dropped me off, but I pretended not to be scared as I jumped for the stop. I landed hard, and before I'd even made it to my feet the flot had hissed its way back up, settling neatly into the skylane. I didn't want to think about what would have happened if I'd lost my footing, and I paused, trembling, getting my breath back. Here, above the cloud-line, the tops of my neighboring blocks were like the shiny metal teeth of a giant, magnificent animal. I breathed deep.
When I got back to our apartment, I noticed the red light over our door. Wow. Mushu'd been right. Mum was being Decommed. The light meant that the Doctors had been summoned. We wouldn't have long.
"Dad could've waited until I was back from school before he called them," I muttered to myself as I pressed my finger to the biolock. The door slid open, and my parents filled the hallway before me. I stepped through, and the door phisshed shut, sealing with a click.
"Unubert," said my mother, before I even had a chance to take a breath. "Forgive us."
"Forgive you? For what?" I said. "Calling the Doctors early? I mean, I wish you'd waited, so I could have said "goodbye" to you properly, Mum, but..."
"The Doctors aren't coming for your mother," snapped my father. I flicked my eyes towards him. His fists were clenched.
"Oh, Dad!" I said. "How long have you got?"
"Will you please explain to her, Nesta," said Dad. "I have work to do." He nodded to me before striding towards his study. "Goodbye, child," he said, without meeting my eyes. I began to feel cold, despite the apartment's optimum temperature settings.
"Mum, what..." She cut off my words with a gesture.
"Unubert," she began. "I'm..." My heart started pounding as she placed her hands on her stomach, gently. I got a sudden pain in my chest.
"But..." I said, disbelieving. "That's impossible, Mum."
"Sometimes the sterilization surgery doesn't take, they said. In a tiny percentage of cases." Her voice was soft. Her gaze distant. "But I've been tested. And it's going to be a boy, Unubert. A boy!" Her happiness made her words sparkle. My throat was dry.
"So, what about me?" As my mother raised her eyes to mine, I heard the soft beep from the biolock. The door hissed open behind me, and I could smell that the Doctors were here. They stank of cold, like a long-empty room.
"You know your father has always wanted a son, darling," she said. "I'm so sorry."
The End
This story was first published on Monday, October 21st, 2013


Sinéad O'Hart normally spends her time writing stories for children and young people, but occasionally she lets her dark side out with a twisty story for grown-ups. She likes medieval stuff, books, and tea, and blogs about reading and writing at http://sjohart.wordpress.com. A longlisted author in the 2013 Irish Writers' Centre Novel Fair competition with her Young Adult novel 'Tider', she's currently at work on a trilogy for children. Her work can be found in 'The Bohemyth', ‘Number Eleven Magazine’, 'Synaesthesia Magazine,' 'wordlegs', and 'The Looking Glass Magazine'. Thoughts on the writing of 'One': The ideas of overpopulation and pressure on dwindling resources play on my mind a lot, and I've written several short stories, including this one, about that topic. I enjoyed writing 'One' from the point of view of the child who can't imagine her own doom until it's too late; I feel there's a deep metaphor in there, somewhere...

- Sinead O'Hart

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