Sooner Than Tomorrow

by Melike Özbay.

Marja watches her reflection through the window. It's 6 p.m. She is standing in the space formerly reserved for drivers in this new generation ofautomated unmanned trams. It is impossible for her to even fall because of the slack. In these trams, which flow about 15 cm above the ground, as if they are gliding, the attraction force between the road and the vehicle is so strong that it is impossible to feel any movement inside. It is like a frozen pack of humans getting transported from one place to other. When these three-storey trams were introduced, everyone believed that they would be a solution to traffic problems. Unfortunately, not much has changed in the lives of people like her, who spend every day on this road. She senses a wave in her body, a strange elevation. She needs to blow her breath a little more violently than usual. A feeling that is hard to describe."Still too crowded" she thinks, and through this awakening, she realizes that she hoped something would change. Some kind of a small headset, called freephone, fixed to her ear, starts ringing. At that exact moment, the mini disc in her bag, another next-generation computer, starts to vibrate, and the lights of the watch on her wrist start flashing. In fact, it's all one call. She stretches her head a little to read the screen of the timer. Shesees the warning with text:

Pritoman status notification - reminder.

Today is the third day she passed without completing the 5-question survey. For ten years, she has completed this mini-survey. Although the way the questions are asked changes every other day, it is usually directed toward her feelings, such as "how are you feeling" or her daily activities, such as "did you eat regularly today". Sometimes the answer is chosen from multiple-choice. Sometimes it wants her to choose one of the two options (happy or unhappy). Rarely there is space for her to complete. Over the years, she had sometimes come across the same questions. But if she doesn't finish it today, the program will transfer her to the second stage of the reporting system. The second stage means connecting to a call center tasked with making a mental assessment. She has never experienced this before and does not know if moving to the second stage has any sanctions.

The trembling of the disc in her bag is at the same level as a man's buttocks, and the jelly buttocks of the person are also vibrating softly under the effect of the bag, but he does not seem to bother. His mind is also occupied; he looks at the 3D billboard they pass by. There is a lattice outside the skyscraper’s mid-level in such a way that it is clear from this perspective. Inside the cage, there is some kind of human-shaped animal riding a rocking toy horse, with only a strap on and a tie on the naked body. It has a childish smile in the area where it supposes to be a face. As it rides the toy horse, as the bus progresses, the perspective deteriorates, and the image disappears. Marja is so cramped that she can’t silence the alert on her phone, watch, or tablet. She is getting tenser and tenser.

She's been so distracted since she quit the medication. She realizes that not completing these reports will cause her trouble. To put it more accurately, although she does not describe it as something going to happen to her, what she feels is similar to anxiety. The self-control books she reads say that symptoms such as trouble focusing, dizziness, and shortness of breath can be a sign of stress; in that case, she should consult the nearest health centre. The drug was blocking all these alien thoughts. It helped her focus and made her feel a little more energetic than would be needed throughout the day. She had stopped taking the drug for the first time three days ago, after using it for ten years. For ten years, she had not become pensive and not dreamed, not even once. She had spent her life moving short-term plans around her fixed schedule. She had gone through the crowds without flirting with a stranger, without having fictional daydreamed fights with others, or without having fantasies about hitting the fire alarm in the warehouse where she worked. She is familiar with these feelings from the books she reads, but she never feels empathized, understood, or touched when she reads them.

All her days were spent in the same way, checking the label in the warehouse and supervising the automation system that controls the movement of the parcels from one side to another. She goes to the small compartment designed for the break only to get the water from the vast water dispenser with a "live-and-let-live” label written all over it. Yesterday, maybe for the first time, she didn't want to return after a glass of water.

"Does the water taste strange to you too?" She asked to her shift mate Tureyna

Tureyna looked at her with puzzled eyes.

“No!" she responded, turned around and left.

Marja was alone for a while in the room, which looked like a carnival place with shelves across the walls and various colourful snack packages on shelves that no one had eaten so far.

Looking at Tureyna’s curved hip from behind, Marja realized she didn't remember when they met. For how long was she working here? Well, how long has even Marja been here? Clicking on the button on her watch, she opened the insurance section on the main page. She clicked on the result tag and found the details. Check-in on 31 Aug 2034. She returned to the main page and looked at today's date, 05 May 2049. It’s been fifteen years since Marja started working in this warehouse. She had worked with a variety of robots. Now the AX34 model robot she is working with pushes the parcel to the turning point of the moving band with one hand, thelabel on the box gets scanned as the packages turn the corner, and the system receives the barcode loaded. When the green light comes on the screen, the parcel moves from the corner to the next moving band and gets pulled by another AX34. Marja's job is to stand right in this corner and ensure the system moves smoothly. In the first years of her duty, she had the labels scanned by herself with the small machine in her hand, and after a few years, they switched to this angular system they have now. Marja was even promoted to this new role because of her contribution to the transition.

She usually doesn’t remember how her days pass by. The websites she looks at, the streets she walks through, and everything she comes into contact with during the day is collected in a data pool. Years ago, she gave her consent to the application called properfeel. Probably around the same time she started the medication. The application's algorithm evaluates all the data collected, compares it to others who use the app and gives Marja suggestions about who to meet, where to meet, and when to meet. If the recommendation is a person, generally, it comes with a small video recording from the person. Once a month or maybe every two months, that's how she meets someone. They would usually eat at a famous restaurant of that time, the app would list the restaurants that would be most suitable for both of them, the application would easily reserve a table, and then, in the end, they would make up in someone's house. Usually, Marja would take care of herself a little more after her partner left. The 5-wire vibrator is the most valuable thing in her house. There is a vibration mode in the metal that acts as a sexual organ, and it is connected to the body like an ECG device and sends tiny electrical currents. There's no need to fantasize anything after the wires and patches clinch to 2 to the hips, 2 to the breast and 1 to the nape. Nothing had been heartstruck in her mind in all these meet-ups until the new video she saw two days ago. There is an alert on the screen.

A new message from Dario!

In the recording, Dario folds a paper and makes a bird model. He throws the bird towards the screen; the bird falls after quite a short distance. Dario appears behind the birds smiling; this was the first time Marja had watched such a video without a speech. Usually, the people she met would introduce themselves in a few sentences and describes their expectations from the meeting. Her own video was more or less like that. When she saw Dario's video, she impulsively gave her consent. That night she barely slept halfway and watched the video until the morning. In the middle of the night, she opened her disk. It is a square book-shaped machine with only a couple of buttons. After you click start, it opens a small hologram, a 3D animated internet world, where you can access anything. She plunged into thousands of websites, forums, and video channels by writing "help for a special meeting" on the internet. She opened pages, which led to the new pages and the other ones, while new pages kept forwarding her to other pages again. In a forum that received very few views, she found a link called “#drugtruth." There were several max 60-second videos in this link. Marja found a comment from an anonymous member saying, "stop, immediately! If you are using the medicine called impulproplan, STOP NOW, you will thank me after your date!!! ;))))" For the first time in 10 years, she woke up very tired that morning and did not take her medicine.

The next day, she transferred 12% fewer parcels than she normally would, but she didn't notice.

After arriving home that evening, she noticed a pain in her chest. And it is still there. It is difficult for her to breathe on this cramped tram, so she decides to get off without waiting for the stop. As the bus slows down, she flows into the crowd, approaches the door and throws herself out. Oh, finally, fresh air. She would probably have vomited if she had stayed inside a little longer.

Ten years ago, the technical doctor who took her prescription and recorded it in the system described the effects of drug withdrawal at length. It was a long recording, with horrible images on the screen in front of a monotonous, untoned voice.

“When stopped after prolonged use, a decrease in appetite, a feeling of restlessness, nausea, fatigue, and palpitation are very frequent. Heart rhythm disorder, heart attack, and muscle spasms are frequent. Motor neurone diseases, partial stroke is seen with moderate frequency. In case of cessation after five years of regular use, the risk of partial paralysis increases by 40%. Taking a break without advice is not recommended and should only be considered under the doctor's control...”

It took her 3 hours to complete the drug initiation training with the risk approvals. She consented to more than 40 videos by creating an audio recording on the screen without listening correctly. She had no choice anyway, and it was informally impossible for someone who had not started this medicine to get any job and, if so, to continue. At that time, everyone thought this drug would free one from the unbearable pressure of monotonous business life. Moreover, if you become more efficient, there will be a ton of time left for your personal life.

Ten years. Marja can no longer remember the boredness of the days when she first got a job. It would be easier to say that the pain in her chest had changed in years, and she had become numb. However, that would not be accurate. A void had grown within her, and she began to feel its presence intensely in her body. It is just there. There is a profound, solid absence without gravity between her chest cavity and her hip, like a pit. And every day, its boundaries are getting wider. Her hands and legs were like plastic crimped pipes attached to this dense centre. Her pupils are small, and the bloodless cheeks and lips are pale, always half apart, so there is no need for an effort to breathe. Days are not chasing the days. In her mind, the next day simply does not occur. In the absence of movement, the futuristic hopeful feeling and the certainty of tomorrow are weak. Her awareness of the present is disappearing. Not just that. Without tomorrow, experiences of the past she would have used to build tomorrow are needless, and her memories are getting erased in time, slowly. Her life is spent acting in a series of situations, one after another in order. It will be a slow-motion anime movie if someone films her life.

She finally arrives at the bar. This morning Dario texted her an address

"Fuck the app suggestions, come here."  He wrote.

The large two-curtain rustic wooden door opens automatically as she approaches. She arrives in the large dark hall. There are stairs everywhere, and they are very lengthy. It looks like every stairway leading from one point is going to heaven. Each one connects to the hundreds of small half-open compartments above in every other 20-30 step. There are sitting areas where up to 3 people can sit in the compartments. The suspended partitions are built with thin steel wires to resemble a cage, with a narrow entrance leading to a single step. Looking up from the entrance to the seating area reminds her of an old strong tree where people hang on its branches. Marja touches the barcode on her phone and holds it upwards; a yellow light flashes at the entrance to one of the compartments. She slowly heads towards that staircase and begins to climb the steps. Dario has already arrived, and when she reaches the last few steps, she sees him standing up and waiting, dashing, tall, wearing a green inflatable coat. Marja nods her head, saying, "Hello" Dario reflexively extends his hand to clasp. Marja strangely grabs his slightly sweaty warm hand; Dario makes an old-fashioned gesture and shakes her hand excitedly. A slight redness settles on Marja's cheeks. She enters the compartment as if sitting down for a moment and immediately comes back, uncontrollably:

“shall we go from here?”

She asks.

“Well, okay”

okay? Marja spoke unintentionally, and now she outthinks, to where? she panics. Her uneasiness and sense of loss of control are growing.

They rush down step by step and go out into the bright street. Although it is dusk, the road is bright enough to make someone blind. There are so many lights and colours. They start walking. Marja is constantly trying to get her attention to understand the words of Dario, who speaks constantly.

“You know, these apps make you a little nervous. Actually, I wouldn't say I like meeting someone from there. But I haven't been able to talk to anyone since I moved back to town. To meet people, you have to make eye contact with them so you can say hello to someone, haha! Impossible! I bet in this city, making eye contact is much more difficult than getting on the bus to the centre or, I dunno, finding fresh cheese, you know, I love fresh cheese. I used to have it every day in our house when I was little, and my mother loves it too”

Dario speaks without even breathing. Marja walks with her eyes squinted and looking at her feet. Does her own mother like fresh cheese too? As if Dario had read his mind partially,

“Don't say I don't like cheese. Oh, I wish I could find you now, there were a few backstairs stores in the old thief market a few years ago, but they destroyed that neighbourhood. Still, none of them is like what we eat in our childhood. When I was a kid, we used to run in the meadow all day and then…”

A vision of endless meadows captures Marja; she dreams of a girl running towards Marja from a far, far away. Is this her own memory, or is she dreaming right now about someone else? The girl who runs in her daydream looks like Marja. Not exactly. She is like a different version of Marja; other structural components are mixed up with Marja’s. Girl galloping towards Marja with firm steps, solid pace. Something in the girl’s attitude, perhaps in her small gestures, resembles Marja. Dario is still speaking and talking about his childhood.

“My whole life was spent chasing after sparrows. It's tough to find birds, you know. Did you go to school in person or remotely? What difference does it make that they both showed the sparrows, don’t they? When I told the technical teacher once that I saw a real sparrow, he didn't believe it, nobody thought it, you know, how the kids are, my only close friend Youssef believed it only, well, my old buddy”.

Marja slowly raises her eyes and looks at Dario, wondering what someone who has a dear friend in life looks like. She searches to see if a mark on his face indicates that he has friends, while Dario continues to talk non-stop, longing to hear himself out loud, without even noticing her watchful eyes.

“Then, one day, everything changed; our friendship was more like friendship (he air quotes the word friendship). Youssef was driving me crazy, organizing everything, and treating me like I was a dinner activity. We were doing things together, but not like together, you know, more like a reciprocal. We were talking in turn. We were taking words one by one. That damn guy suddenly distanced himself from me, when I told him this, he never accepted, he said "youare the only person who knows my every secret" well mate, that was not true! I am the only person with whom Youssef shares the secrets he has agreed to accept. I can only see what he reflects, nothing more. It was like he was hiding something even from himself. I never understand where he was putting the memories he chooses not to remember; I think he even doesn't realize he lost something in his head, then you know how it is, we grow apart, I'm sure he started a job, I haven’t. It is challenging for those who do not have a prescription to find a job with permanent insurance, but I do daily work here and there.”

Marja gets into the word for the first time.

“How come you haven't taken any medication?”

“I dunno” he replies “My parents, rejected it when I was little, and when I came of age at 16, I think I postponed it, then I got used to it, you know, people are afraid.”

The curving fleshy worm that has been wandering around Marja's stomach since the morning seems to swell. She barely suppresses her desire to shout, "I don't know any of this!"

Dario suddenly stops.

“this is where I stay”

Marja have followed Dario without realizing where they were going; now, she is looking at the large 40-story building next to her, which must be temporary housing. She hesitantly looks into Dario's eyes. Dario looks at the face reader of the narrow steel door, but the door does not recognize his look and doesn't open. With a shadowy panic, Dario takes his wallet from his back pocket; the different identities inside the wallet strike Marja's eye. Dario selects one, clicks the card button on the reader, and scans the barcode on the ID. The name, age and photo appear on the screen; Dario shouts to the reader, "Please open the door" before Marja can read the name on the cover. The system approves the voice, and the steel door slowly opens onto the narrow lift. Dario dials 245. The elevator is shaken, a loud noise reveals, and they move.

Marja is tired of not being able to keep up with the speed of her mind for the last hour. She is nearly losing her mind as if trying to remember these fine traces from somewhere.

Finally, the narrow door opens, and they enter a small room.

In front of them is a rectangular glass facing the illuminated street, an old-fashioned sofa in front of the window, a small hearth against the right wall, and a plastic stool in front of it. A curtain hangs on the other wall, with the back completely closed. Dario reveals his recklessness and kisses Marja on the shoulder. Marja gets startled and retreats a little, thinking that they are going to run out of the house, like the moment they left the bar. Then her mind shifts to the tingling feeling coming from her groin. She feels like she is hearing a sound that is getting louder and louder. Her feet are being cut off from the ground. She feels like somebody is running in her stomach with firm steps, a solid pace. She lets Dario kiss her on the cheek, from the lips, on the forehead. How it feels is nothing like she experienced before. Their bodies were calling each other. Dario’s motions capture the momentum of the images that rush through Marja's mind. She closes her eyes and lets all the images disappear. Dario hugs her as if he is hitting a wall and surpassing it. There's a more accustomed, entrenched control in his movements, a dark piece of information that will completely take over Marja. After their breaths are too mixed to be distinguished from each other's breaths, the darkness fades slightly. Marja opens her eyes and tries to get used to the light again, but she is so tired, unable to keep her eyes open and resist the call of sleep.

When she wakes up, she reaches to the wall next to her so that she can get up as she is used to, but her hand falls in vain. There is no wall. She remembers that she is not in her bed. Marja looks around with surprise. With the instant fear of waking up somewhere else, she slowly calms down. The images of the night come to her head. The streets they slip, the moment of a sparrow flying, the places that seem to be her own childhood memory belongs, the rhythmic voice of Dario with uncanny melodies. Where is Dario, by the way? Outside, the light of night has already turned into the light of the morning. She sees a note on the small coffee table in front of her "I need to leave now, but I would love to see you again." She dresses up and leaves too.

She walks out into the street from the ground floor of the 40-story building, she cannot resist the joy of touching the cool air on her skin; she smiles, shudders, and flaps her arms like two wings, ready to take off. She hugs herself to warm up a little.

Her phone, tablet and watch start to vibrate again. The three-day period is over. The system will lead her to the second phase of reporting today. This might be an indication that someone is worried about her. She picks up the phone, goes to the settings, and removes all approvals. She decides to enjoy the spring morning.