Yes, the title is ironic.
Bit of an odd one this - a girl I was talking to on a dating site mentioned that the Guardian were running a competition to win… I dunno something gadgety I think, and to enter you had to write a story offering your vision of a future society. There were a few rules - It had to imagine life in 2525, It had to be under 3,000 words, it had to have a technology angle, and you couldn’t use any real brands.
So obviously, being a fool, I decided to enter the competition in order to impress her. Ironically, despite having spent 10 years writing about Sci-fi, I’d never actually attempted to write any, and banging out 3000 words of cod-Gibson bullshit was actually surprisingly fun. Obviously I thought I’d try and make it as hilariously cheesy as possibly, so I created The MindsEye, perception altering specs that change the world around you so that you see the world as you want it to be, rather than how it actually is. I know right? HOW ORIGiNAL. Anyway, here, for your reading pleasure, is ‘Happiness is a Warm Gum’.
Happiness is a Warm Gum
Brad was breathing heavily, and there was a pain in his chest. His visor steamed up with his feeble exhalations as he approached the vehicle. He knew that somewhere inside it, there were enough explosives to detonate the entire car park, and the empty shopping centre above. In his MindsEye, he could see the schematics of the car, a beat-up Fiesta ST, and he flicked it around aimlessly, trying to figure out where the most likely hiding place was. Which started him thinking about where the most likely hiding place in the car park was. Not that he’d really get very far if he had to run for it. He gripped his multi-tool and adjusted his visor. He squinted at the car as he reached the passenger side. MONTIROM may have been terrorist, but he wasn’t a fool – he would have booby-trapped the payload. He slowly moved his fingers up to the door handle, feeling the hard plastic texture under his touch. He pulled. Locked.
Tiny snowflakes of glass became chunks and shards as the multi-tool ploughed through the window. Brad quickly slid his frame through the opening. ‘Just like Dukes Of Hazzard’ he said to himself quietly. The MindsEye started buffering, before shunting the ST’s schematics into a corner to make room for the Dukes of Hazzard intro sequence. “Hey, off!” shouted Brad. He felt under the seats, around the dashboard casing. Nothing. Finally, in a sad display of sweaty desperation, he opened the glove box. There, blinking merrily away, in a web of multi-coloured wires was the final payload.
“Honey?” He shouted. “Which wire do I cut?” His wife, Angela appeared in the peripheral vision of his MindsEye.
“The red one!” Brad cut the red wire. The blinking stopped. He felt a sense of relief seeping over him. Or perhaps it was just urine. He flicked the perception filter switch on his MindsEye, and propped it up on his forehead, rubbing his sockets as the real world slowly floated back into focus. He looked up at the clock. It was 20:25. He sighed, before looking down at his trousers. Yep, it was urine.
He slouched into the hallway. Angela was just paying the delivery guy. He seemed really happy – perhaps he was delivering a pizza to a movie star in his MindsEye. She shut the door and yelled up the stairs.
“Sophie! Dinner!” A small voice echoed back:
“Now Sophie!” Angela looked her husband up and down, noticing him for the first time. “Did you fix that OS code?” He nodded.
“But, bomb disposal, really? Why’d you make me go through that?”
“I thought it might hurry you up.” She smiled, then looked down at the darkness around his crotch.
“Ew. Go and get changed for dinner. SOPHIE!”
Brad waddled up the stairs as the shrapnel of his wife and daughter’s dinner-eating negotiation bounced around him. He went into the bedroom and took his trousers off. Sam suddenly popped into view.
“Brad, can you hear me?”
“Oh good. Hey listen Tiger, we’re going to watch Back to the Future tonight, do you want to join the stream?” Brad sighed. His boss was obsessed with old movies.
“Nah, you’re fine.”
“Hello? McFly?! It’s a classic Tiger!”
“Sorry, it’s Sophie’s birthday tomorrow. Got an errand to run.”
“How old is the little firecracker now?” Asked Sam. Brad had to think for a second as he pulled on a fresh pair of non-pissed on trousers.
“She’s 11. Actually, I’ve really pushed the boat out this ye-“
“Great, great,” said Sam. “Listen, did you manage to fix the OS code?”
“Uh, yeah, I found Monty’s last bug just now actually - that could have really blown up in our faces. Should be working fine now, so we’re all good for the launch tomorrow.”
“Gnarly!” Said Sam. “I’ll catch you later Tiger!” Sam vanished, only to be replaced almost instantly by Angela.
“Can you get Sophie to come down? Dinner’s getting cold.”
Brad padded across the hall to Sophie’s room, and knocked on the door.
“Sophie?” He pushed the door open a little. He could hear Sophie’s voice whispering.
“I can’t believe she did that! What a slut!”
“DAD!” Sophie kicked the door shut. “Ohmygod, I’m 11 now, you can’t just come barging in!”
“Nearly 11!” Laughed Brad. “It’s not your birthday until tomorrow.” There was a silence, as if a young girl was contemplating her imminent adulthood, and the likelihood that a snotty attitude tonight may affect the quality of gifts tomorrow.
“I’ll call you back” he heard her say, and her door cracked open to reveal a rotund face with dark rings around the eyes. “Hi Daddy.” She smiled. Brad suddenly couldn’t remember when he’d seen her last.
“Dinner’s ready.” She nodded, and left the shade of her pit to follow him downstairs.
They finished dinner in relative silence, though it was clear not everyone was enjoying the peace and quiet, as Sophie was nodding along to the latest Black Roses album and staring blankly. She stuffed the last bit of crust in her mouth, and pushed her chair away from the table. Angela waved her hands in front of Sophie’s face.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Sophie sighed, and grabbed the pizza box and slung it in the Bio-degrader, which started to whir and clank as it rapidly decomposed the container and its leftovers.
She fired a quick “Happy?” at Angela, and slunk out the room, leaving her step-mother bruised. Angela picked up one of Sophie’s stray hairs from the dinner table, and idly wondered if a Sophie II would be better behaved. She quickly dismissed the dark thought, and regained her composure.
“She’s just excited about tomorrow. Y’know she’s the last one in her class to get her MindsEye.” With good reason, thought Brad. “But I wish you’d tell me what you’ve got her for her birthday.” Brad looked up at her.
“It’s a surprise.”
“Ok, Mysterio. Oh, don’t forget Pete and Meg and the rest of the crew are coming round for the party tomorrow. “ Brad shrugged, and headed for the garage.
As the car drove through the nighttime rainy streets of South East London, Brad flicked through the Operating System code he’d been working on earlier. Everything seemed fine, but he was still nervous about the launch. Angela flicked abruptly into view. “Oh sorry, I forgot, can you pick up some Happy Gums for Meg tomorrow? I don’t want her being in a crappy mood, especially after last year.”
“I will.” Angela vanished from his MindsEye, to be replaced with beautiful Camberwell. He passed a video billboard advertising the Sinclair 6 – “You’ll want it, but you won’t know why!” read the slogan, as a bikini-clad model rotated a white box with nothing but a black question mark on it. Flashing lights appeared in the distance, and his car slid to the side of the road as the police cruiser screamed past.
Brad’s car soon resumed its journey, leaving him free to let his mind wander. He pulled up the memories from last year’s party. There was Sophie, twirling in her party dress as it clung to her pudgy frame. There was Pete’s wife Meg, throwing back the beers. There was Blair, their cat, licking Sophie’s cake to see if it tasted of mice. There was Pete, attempting to high five his sister Angela. There was Sophie, hugging Blair as tight as she could. There was Meg, coming out of the bathroom, jumping in surprise at the sight of Brad. There was Meg, a boozy look in her eyes, pulling Brad by his shirt back into the bathroom with her. There was Brad’s escaped shirt buttons, lying face-down on the bathroom floor, as if to avoid making eye-contact with the sticky infidelity taking place above…
“Now arriving at your destination,” chirped the autodrive. Brad quickly locked the memory folder. He looked up at the shop sign, sighed and got out of the car.
It took a second for Brad to adjust to the brightness of the shop. The white walls were adorned with sliding pictures of people and domesticated animals. The families looked unbelievably happy, the animals dead-eyed and docile. The Clerk’s head jerked up, acknowledging Brad’s presence.
“Welcome to RE:Pets, where you and your friends are together forever! How can I help you?” The RE:Pets logo flashed up in Brad’s MindsEye, loading up his order history.
“Uh, picking up”
“Are you dropping off, or picking up?” asked the clerk.
“Still picking up.”
“Can I have your order code, Sir?” The code flashed up in view, and Brad flicked it over. He noticed that the assistant’s pink RE:Pets lab coat uniform had a big red stain on the pen pocket. It sort of looked like a rabbit’s head. The whir of machinery thudded dully in the background. A large thump sounded in Hutch Two.
“Hutch Two,” said the clerk. “How will you be paying?”
“I’ve already paid”
“How will you be paying?”
“How much do I owe?” The clerk’s eyelids flickered.
“Sir, you’ve already paid the full amount. Thank you for your custom. Would you like to purchase pet insurance this time?” The photos on the walls morphed into screaming adverts for the RE:Pets insurance scheme. Brad shook his head.
“Please come again.” The second hutch door opened, and Brad reached in for the basket inside. He opened it. Yup, that was Blair alright. He even had the same white fur medallion on his neck. Brad closed the basket and headed back into the rain. Sophie was going to love this. He threw the basket onto the backseat.
“Home,” said Brad.
Brad didn’t know why he’d done it. He didn’t know why he’d gone along with it, letting Meg pull him down onto the bathroom floor, letting her pull his sweaty palms onto her warm, flushed breasts. He didn’t know he’d let her rip his shirt open, why he’d let her reach into his trousers. He didn’t even know who she was really seeing in her MindsEye when she pulled him into her. He hoped it was someone cool.
A siren screamed. His car pulled over, but the lights failed to streak past – he was being pulled over. Brad saw a dark shadow getting out of the squad car. There was a tap at the window.
“Good evening sir,” said the shadow as the window came down. “Can I see your registration please?” Brad lifted up his MindsEye, and the shadow shone a blinding light into his corneas.
“Bradley Johnson?” Brad nodded. “What are you doing out tonight sir?”
“Is there a problem officer?”
“Why are you out so late?”
“It’s my daughter’s birthday tomorrow, the big double one, and I was picking up her gift.” The shadow looked at him, as if noticing him for the first time. His eyelids flickered.
“Hold on – aren’t you Angela Sinclair’s husband?”
“Uh, second husband, yeah.”
“Sorry to have bothered you sir. Very excited about the launch. My wife has already been queuing for the last three weeks.” The shadow leaned in conspiratorially. “Any chance you could drop any hints as to what it does?” Brad flicked his MindsEye back down, and turned the shadow into a rabbit, which eased his nerves considerably.
“Sorry, you’ll have to wait until tomorrow like everyone else.” The shadow rabbit looked disappointed. “I will say this though – the new parental controls on the perception filter are pretty handy for tricking your kids into doing their homework.” Satisfied at this microgram of news, the shadow rabbit waved him away.
“Alright sir. Carry on.” Brad unclenched his stomach muscles, and Blair II let out a triumphant mewl as the window closed. Then, a second tap at window. It wound down again.
“Just one more thing, Sir. What’s that on the back seat?”
“A cat?” The shadow rabbit’s MindsEye flickered.
“Oh, uh, this is Blair II. Blair I died last year.” The shadow rabbit looked skeptical. “I-I must have forgotten to register the death,” stammered Brad. “He got hit by a car.” Images of the bathroom door opening flickered through Brad’s head.
“Well, register it as soon as possible. You know the law,” said the shadow rabbit. “Have a safe journey home.” Relief flooded over Brad. A sudden thought crossed his mind. He checked his trousers. No, it was definitely just relief this time.
Brad slowly unwrapped himself from sleep to see Sophie’s face pressed up against his.
“Morning!” she shouted. “Can I have it now?” Brad groaned.
“Not yet honey. Where’s Angela?” His wife popped into view.
“Hi Brad, I’m just trying to get everything ready for the party later.”
“How’s the launch going?”
“Well I’ve made plenty of sandwiches and a salad, and I’ve ordered some pizzas for everyone.”
“No, the LAUNCH.”
“Oh that. Take a look.” A newsfeed popped up showing rioting at a supermall in United Korea.
“Business as usual then.” Brad heaved himself out of bed, and made for the shower. Sophie grabbed at his t-shirt.
“Haven’t you got something for me?” She looked up at him. It was probably one of the last times he’d ever see her eyes.
“Can I at least wash myself first?”
As the water flowed over him, Brad remembered the screaming last year, as Sophie had run down the stairs in a panic. He’d chased her, while zipping up his trousers. Meg had got in Pete’s car and tried to drive off manually. Blair I wasn’t used to being around cars that didn’t autocorrect. The wheel arch was a mess.
Brad activated his bathroom memory again, Meg’s sultriness, the sweat on her chest. He felt his crotch stir, and almost without thinking, he began to coax it to life. Suddenly, Angela appeared, pushing the memory to one side.
“Did you get those Happy Gums for Meg last night?”
“Damnit, I’m in the shower!”
“Brad! Go get them!” Angela faded out. Brad smashed the tap valve shut. He stood there for a second, seething and frustrated, as the visual memory of his mistake looped in his peripheral vision.
Brad returned from the vendor with the Happy Gums and Blair II’s basket in hand to find the party in full swing. He switched his MindsEye to party settings. The misery of a family gathering became a Bollywood soirée. Over by the food, Brad spotted a Karishma Kapoor-looking Meg and tossed over the Happy Gums.
“Angela asked me to get these for you.” She raised her eyebrow at him as she put down her beer and ripped open the pack. Pete reached over and grabbed the beer, hiding it behind a heaving tray of samosas that were actually sandwiches. Angela appeared in a MindsEye groupcast.
“Present time everyone!”
Sophie ran into the room, and sat on the chair in the centre. One by one, the Bollywood dignitaries offered their gifts. Meg and Pete were last.
“Congratulations Sophie!” Said Pete. “We hope this will make up… a bit… for last year.” Meg held up a mewling basket. Sophie delved inside, and pulled out a kitten. Brad thought he was going to be sick. It looked just like Blair I. “We know how much you loved that cat.” Meg chipped in. “I’d found some fur on my jacket that night, and Pete saved it, and, well…” she trailed off. “I just hope you enjoy him.” Sophie beamed.
“Look, Daddy! It’s Blair!” She pulled her Blair clone and hugged him tight while he clawed for freedom. Brad was almost choking. “What’s that you’ve got Daddy?” Sophie pointed at his basket.
“It’s not for you darling” cracked his voice.
“I want to see!”
Slowly, his hand shaking, he opened the basket. Blair II stretched as he clambered out. He started licking his paws. The entire party stopped talking, and stood there in horror at the second unauthorised pet. Sophie squealed as she ran over and scooped him up.
“This is the best birthday ever!” she laughed, setting the two kittens down, and attempting to play with them both. Brad looked across at Angela. She was seething. She grabbed her gift off the table and walked into the kitchen.
“Sophie, can you come in here a moment? You’re going to want to see this…”
Sophie wafted after her stepmother, high on cat bliss, leaving the guests to chat amongst themselves.
Angela handed her the box.
“Open it sweetheart!” Sophie tore at the paper, ripping open the question-marked packaging for the latest model of the MindsEye.
“It’s a Sinclair 6! Turn it on, turn it on!” Angela removed the safety stickers and fastened the device around Sophie’s head. She flicked it on. “I can’t see anything?” Angela held her hand.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart, I’m just setting the Parental Controls.” Sophie’s MindsEye flickered into life as Angela fiddled with her stepdaughter’s filters. Within seconds Sophie had a friend in each activity space. “It’s the new Sinclair 6!” she grinned, as her friends shook their heads disbelievingly.
“What do you say?” asked Angela, picking up something off the floor.
“That’s alright. Now before you go rushing off, put this in the Bio-degrader please.”
“Fine!” trilled Sophie as she took the mewling pizza box and threw it in the machine. While Sophie skipped away, Brad retched at the sound of the Bio-degrader at work, rendering bones and blood into mulch. Blair III started scratching at his shaking trouser leg. Brad felt something being pressed into his hand. “I think you might need these more than I do,” Said Meg. He slipped the top gum into his mouth, and felt the rapture flow through his body. He looked down at the Happy Gums packet Meg had given him, and realised for the first time that its logo was a rabbit. Then he turned, and slowly followed her up the stairs.
It didn’t really impress her (Mental note to self: Do not try and impress girls by writing stories featuring kitten murder), especially as I didn’t even win the competition. But it has at least inspired me to write my magnum opus, Spongeclash, a 5 volume Space Opera about a multi-generational dynasty of sentient sponges. I’m already on page 800 of the second book (Spongeclash II: Sud’s Law) and I think it’s going to be a big hit. Why sponges you ask? Well I want readers to really get into my epic, and if there’s one thing I know about sponges, it’s that they’re super absorbing*.