I am a chair. It used to be polite to ask people what they were. Everyone had jobs. Now it is impolite to bring it up, in case the person you ask isn’t anything and has no job. I still like to say it, because I have one. I am a chair, and I go to the Towers every day.
When we were kids, most of my friends never thought they would ever see the Towers from closer than here, looking up. You can’t see them anymore because of the weather, and also, they changed the windows from glass to cladding and they don’t reflect the light anymore. The insides are almost all screens now, not like actual windows. You can’t see the Residential at all on the screens. They edit it.
The tram that goes to the Towers is always working, not like the others. And Yutian Station has the best, the most expensive restaurants in this entire Residential, for blocks and blocks around. They don’t need to be refilled with paste from the soya trucks every week; they can get energy from the ground and the sky, find molecules in the air, and make anything you ask them for, but it costs a lot. Almost a whole day’s pay. I never eat there, on the days when I eat. I am saving up. I don’t want to be stuck in a Residential forever, not even one as nice as this one.
At the Towers, I go into the Utility Entrance with all the other furniture and decorations. The guards call it the Thing Hole, which is rude, but it is the only ugly part the Towers have, with a plain metal iris and a dark elevator that is too small and will make us late unless we pack in so tightly we cannot breathe.
The others talk a lot, but I do not. Owners do not fraternize with the furniture, and so neither do I.
I almost make an exception for Lucien. He is a decoration, and he stands all day painted in glitter and holding a wine bottle until his Owner’s lunch time, and then nothing the rest of the day, unless someone puts a coat on him because they think he is a coat rack. This is absurd. Lucien is obviously not a coat rack. Who would want to cover him up?
But luckily for my decorum, Lucien is not from Howdan, the block where I live. He has nothing to talk to me about and no reason to approach me; I am not lovely enough to be a decoration like him. I have strong legs and a low center of balance, and I can hold very heavy things for a long time without getting tired. That is why I became a chair. Helena, the lamp who works in the same office, sometimes tries to speak to me, but so far, my cold glances and one-word replies have been successful at making her keep her distance. She takes her light and goes to stand in the corner with only a nod, and I perform some light stretches before I take my position behind the desk.
The desk is only made of metal because our Owner is quite smart and knows how messy handwriting can look when performed on even the most rigorously scraped and smoothed skin.
We used to have a coat rack, too, but one day, when our Owner bumped into him, he coughed, and some of his spittle got onto the Owner’s actual skin. I think that put the Owner off of coat racks in general. We haven’t seen one since that day, anyway.
When the Owner arrives, his morning routine is not unusual at first. He drops his jacket beside the door, where the little robot cleaners quickly gather it up, sanitize it, fold it, and store it in one of their little cupboards in the walls. The cupboards are all over the Towers, invisible until they open to let the robots out or in. The robots keep everything clean and perfect and safe; that is why the Towers are so nice to live in. In Residentials or Carehouses, we have to clean up by ourselves, but it takes so long and is so hard and dirty that it’s barely worth doing at all. That used to be a job, being a cleaner, but can you imagine an actual human going through the Towers and touching and breathing and sweating on everything and calling it clean afterward? Plus, humans can only clean one thing at a time, and only while they’re working, not all the time or instantly or automatically. No, the robots are much better.
My Owner likes to play jokes on his furniture, to test us and make sure we are of high quality. He always starts the day by pretending to be distracted and then dropping suddenly to sit on me as hard as he can. He almost got me the first day, and it was only the strength of my legs that saved me from toppling and losing my job almost before it really started. Now I know to expect it, even if he looks very distracted by his papers or his tablet or his goggles. At home I practice by closing my eyes and having my nephews throw sandbags onto my lap. Today, though, he just sits down normally, scrolling through something on his tablet. I don’t have implants so I can’t see tablet screens. Instead, I do my best to keep him comfortable, shifting slowly to accommodate his movements without him noticing I am moving. No one likes to see their furniture or decorations acting up; it’s one of the first rules of being a furnishing.
The Owner is restless today. He smells of sweat and soybeef beneath his flowered perfume. He had a party last night and left the office early. I think he may have eaten some exotic delicacy that disagreed with him, a real animal perhaps, or Martian fungus wine. He leans forward and grunts, and I feel the heat of his fart pass down my legs and up my abdomen. The smell is rancid, like a week-dead rat, but I live in the Residentials and I do not flinch.
As he sits back, his tailbone grinds harshly against my pelvis and I tamp down a grunt of discomfort. I am successfully silent, but the pain nonetheless distracts me and I almost don’t see him shifting to lean on his elbow. I have to move my arm quite visibly to catch his and protect him from becoming unbalanced and falling.
He freezes, and I panic inside. If he terminates me, I will never have another job. There are already not enough jobs to go around, and if you don’t have a job, you can’t buy good food or pay for a spot in a Residential—and if you can’t feed yourself, you have to go to a Carehouse. My mother was in a Carehouse for the last years of her life. I do not want to go to one myself.
I cannot see the Owner’s expression, since I am behind him. I hold my pose as strong and steady as I can, trying to make him feel my warmth and the comfort of me radiating up into him.
I am a good chair. I know I am.
I hear the faintest rattle of lampshade and a breath from Helena as our Owner suddenly stands. That would be grounds to terminate her, if he were paying attention to her, but he is not. He is looking at me.
The Owner is not as lovely as Lucien, not even as pretty as Helena, who has to cover her face with her hair because of her moles. You do not become an Owner by looking good. You become one by having money, and the way you get money is to have a job. The Owner is pale, almost sallow, with dark and tightly curled hair. He is quite young—has had barely two rejuvenation treatments—and his eyes are large and natural-looking, even as they flash with secret lights and visions.
“Chair,” he says, and my heart nearly explodes. The shadows in the room dance with Helena’s sudden trembling on my behalf.
I do not know what to do. My Owner’s preferences were given to me on a printed flimsy before I was sent to his office the first time. I had been rigidly instructed never to speak to him or acknowledge his presence in any way. There was no instruction given on how to reply if he spoke to me. My breath stops, and I feel the sweat that trickles down the small of my back turn cold.
My Owner smiles, high and icy like old pictures of mountains. Smiling is a positive expression. “Speak with me, chair.”
After a few agonizing seconds, my head pounding and my muscles burning, I can think of no other possible response than compliance with my Owner’s stated wishes. I lick my lips. “Yes, s-sir?”
His smile twists, and I see teeth, pale and symmetrical. “Lord.”
“Yes, uh, lord?”
“How long have you been a chair?”
I count as rapidly as I can without moving my fingers. The days are often hard to distinguish. “Seven months? My lord.”
“Ah, your first job.” He sits on the edge of the desk and I feel a moment of irrational anger and jealousy. The desk is for writing. I am for sitting. “I thought you’d been at it longer; you’re so sturdy.”
I prevent my laugh from escaping. A first job? As though you could have more than one. Who would pay for used furniture? Then I realize I have been praised. “Thank you, sir. Lord. It is an honor to serve.” That line is from the handbook.
“Of course.” He coughs, three times, rhythmic, sounding almost mechanical. “Why?”
I blink. “I don’t understand.”
“Why are you a chair?” He enunciates each word, as if speaking to an infant.
“Because… because having a job is very important.” I struggled to explain something so basic that I’d never thought about it. “If you don’t have a job, you can’t improve yourself. You can’t get any money.”
The Owner smiles again, and I am already beginning to dislike that expression, but I do not show it. “Of course, pursuit of wealth. It’s always the same with people: sloth and apathy or greed and foolishness.”
There seems to be no expected response, so I say nothing.
“How much do you earn as a chair?”
Does he not even know? He is the one paying me! I stammer my answer: “T-two hundred per quarter, Lord.”
The smile widens until I see the edges of his teeth, smooth and white and utterly straight. “And with that money you will improve your station?”
“Yes, Lord, if I persevere. Hard work brings rewards.”
He stands up from the desk and strides to the window, picking up his tablet as he goes. “I will make a bet with you, chair.”
His hand flickers across the screen. “Ten thousand credits, in physical chips, if you agree. Do you agree?”
“Of course, Lord.” I swallow. I cannot think, can barely see, the number is so large. Years of work, earned in an instant!
“Good.” A hatch opens and a robot appears. It carries a small tray on which are five purple cred chips and a large pair of scissors, like the ones Yotan uses to make clothing for the families in our Residential. The Owner picks up the shears and turns to me, leaving the robot hovering with its absurd pile of riches, wealth it cannot comprehend. “Cut off your finger.”
“What!?” I am too startled to remember manners, and I curse myself for a fool. “Lord?”
He proffers the heavy-bladed scissors to me, handle first. “Cut off your finger, and the money is yours. It can be just the pinkie, if you like.”
I hesitate, unwilling to move from my established pose. The Owner’s smile fades at the edges. Before it can disappear entirely, I stand up, feeling the crack and burn in my joints as I leave my position too quickly. My Owner’s smile is wide again, almost a laugh now.
Before I can lose my nerve, I take the shears, set my outermost left finger in their jaws, and slam them shut. The pain is pure white light, so hot and bright that at first I cannot even feel it. There is more resistance than I expected, but my arms are strong and the cutting edge very fine, and I have severed bones before; the spines of rats and snakes, even once a bird, rarely caught but much treasured. Through hard work and perseverance you will find success.
At last, after an instant and an eternity, I find myself collapsed on the floor, blood smearing my clothes, my hands, my arms. The agony in my hand is a seething, living thing, snarling and snapping. I clench my wrist with my other hand despite the pain to staunch the bleeding. Crimson spurts out in uneven streams and dribbles.
Above me, the Owner is no longer smiling. His eyes glow with pleased satisfaction, like he’s just finished rutting. He does not move toward me to help or away to avoid the spatters of blood on the floor. I see a droplet on the tip of one shining white shoe.
“Congratulations,” my Owner says, savoring the words. “Take your chips. You’ll need them at the Medical Sector.”
It costs me eight hundred credits to have an autosurg sterilize and seal my wound. It would have taken half my new wealth to obtain a prosthesis, plus ongoing payments to keep the software updated and operational. I opt for the cheaper solution.
Medical is very quiet compared to my Residential, or even the Towers; I suppose most of the people who could afford medicine have private clinics anyway. Once the automat registers my payment, the doors unlock and I am free to leave.
I know exactly where I am going.
Entertainment had always been a smear of light and sound on the horizon, a tantalizing but forbidden zone where you could buy anything, experience anything, be anything. Sense overwrites and virtual brothels, games of chance and skill, and restaurants that served meat and real vegetables, cooked by true chefs.
One restaurant in particular is my goal, one that I have longed to visit ever since I learned of it. I have never even seen the inside before; they hire only the most decorative employees, and I have never before had enough money to be a Patron.
I clutch my chips so hard that my right hand hurts almost as much as the opiate-dulled ache in my left. I still have four purples. I sent the remainder of my first to my account in the Citizen Database after I paid for my surgery.
With my biometrics, I go to a Bath and, for the first time in my life, select something other than the basic harsh scrub. Softened and perfumed, I visit a Tailor and have some fitted clothing extruded, softer than puffweed, softer than anything I’ve ever slept on, let alone worn, and a pale off-white that would, at home, immediately become soiled by splashes of mud and smears of soot. It has sealable pockets, but I do not trust them enough yet to let go of my chips.
The sign above the door declares its name to be “Have a Seat.” It is a restaurant full of furnishings like me. But not like me, because they are high enough grade to be pure decorations—or close enough that makeup and costuming can do the rest. They are certainly not like me now, because now I am above them. Now I have money. Now I am a Patron.
Giddily, I enter the door and am greeted by a blast of cool wind, a relief from the fetid air of the streets. It is not as cold or clean as the Towers’ sterile environment, and the fans are visible (and mostly mechanical rather than ion-driven), but it is more than I have ever been free to enjoy. The lights have been set to a warm yellow glow, dim and inviting, and the walls are covered in realistically cloth-like plastic hangings. I take a moment for my eyes to adjust, and then I see him.
Lucien is a chair.
A second job? The greedy scamp. Not that I wouldn’t do the same, if I could, but appearance is everything, even for furnishings.
He is a poor chair; I can see that even from the doorway. His back slumps with exhaustion, even in a basic bench pose. Still, the sensation as I lower my aching thighs onto his curved spine is purest delight. I relish the heat of his skin against my flesh. I bear down and hop in place a little, eliciting a stifled grunt of effort from Lucien. This makes me smile; I am a much stronger chair.
I do not know my table, so the enjoyment of leaning my elbows on her shoulder blades is not as bright and sharp as swinging my feet and thumping Lucien in the ribcage or cracking my heel against his wrist down near the floor. The waiters are masked—anyone pretty enough to bare their face would be a furnishing or a decoration—but I command them imperiously, summoning new delicacies to my table with every pass.
The food is commendable, better than most extruded soya, although I find discomforting the unexpected tendons and bones that appear inside it, grown by happenstance and biology rather than layered by a printer. The drinks are true fermentation, and once I have adjusted to the unusual flavor, I consume five or six of them. By the end, my jacket is speckled with dots of purple and red, and I tousle Lucien’s hair scandalously as I lean over to spit refuse onto the floor. A droplet lands on his high cheekbone, and he can do nothing but blink as it trickles slowly down. This is the funniest thing I have ever seen.
In all, my visit to Entertainment nearly drains the first chip’s remaining funds. It is profligate but I do not regret it. These luxuries are why I work as hard as I do. It is a little taste of the victory I will one day attain in truth, when I too have a tablet and can wave my hands to move mountains of money from one side of the globe to the other.
I sleep deeply and well.
The next morning, I doff my expensive suit and put on the plain, durable polyweave I have worn every day of my life. I drink my breakfast slurry and board my tram to the Towers. I join the crowd at the Thing Hole. I stare boldly at Lucien, and he does not meet my eyes. This does not please me as well as I thought it would.
The guard stops me at the door to the tiny elevator. “Not authorized,” he says.
“What? No, I am a chair,” I tell him. “I am a chair on the fifty-seventh floor.”
The guard draws his baton. It is armed; I can see the arcing electricity.
“Please,” I say, holding my hands out to show I mean no harm, that I am innocent, “I’ll be late. I am a chair.”
Helena pushes past me in the line with a harsh laugh. “No one wants damaged furniture,” she says. She points at my severed finger stub, neatly burned pink and white.
“I can still work!” I turn to Helena, pleading with her to come to my aid. “My legs are still strong, my back is straight…”
“It’s not about the work.” Helena bares her teeth at me; it is not a smile.
“For appearance, I can get a prosthetic,” I stammer, “I can go back—”
“Damaged is damaged,” says the guard. “You are no longer authorized.”
Helena glares at me from inside the elevator. I see in her eyes something fierce, something shadowed. I am different now, and she sees me from a new angle.
The doors close. The guard advances a step toward me, and I leave hastily.
The four remaining chips in my pocket do not feel as heavy or as comforting as they did last night. I try to think ahead, to how long I can make them last before I lose my place in the Residential, to how much I can sell or borrow before the debt will pile too high. To have had a job, and to lose it; I will be scorned even at the Dole, even in the Carehouses. Without a job, I am nothing. There is no path out of the Residential any longer, and soon enough, even that toehold will be gone.
I hope that he enjoyed his joke, my Owner. He will have a new chair. Someone ought to warn them. I wonder: would I, if I had the chance, or should they suffer as I did?
I used to be a chair. I’m not anymore.