Hannah Whiteoak’s stories have appeared in Escape Pod, Banshee, and Ellipsis Zine, as well as various anthologies. Find her online at www.hannahwhiteoak.me or on Twitter @hannahwhiteoak.
by Hannah Whiteoak
While waiting for the customer to finish his flashback, Kira and I reviewed the recipe for our next order: #509421, Sunny View Nursing Home.
“What is a nursing home, anyway?” asked Kira.
“It’s where Earth people go to die.” I hadn’t read much beyond the introduction on EarthWiki, but, compared to Kira, that made me an expert.
She rolled her eyes. “Dying is so primitive.”
Most of the ingredients for #509421 were pretty standard, but there were a few that were less common. I made a list and sent it to our supervisor, Karim, for authorisation. “Life is meaningful because it’s finite.”
“But it’s not finite for us,” Kira wriggled her finger in the corner of the tablet screen, making it flicker, an amplified nervous tick. “Only for technophobes who insist on living like cave people.”
I took the tablet from her. “Well, I think there’s something in it.”
Deprived of a device to fiddle with, she tapped her foot. Ignoring her, I checked the timer for the brainwave promoter. The customer had been in there seventeen minutes. The flashbacks usually took around half an hour, so no need to check on him yet. I wondered where he was on Earth. He was using scent #19549, freshly laid asphalt. Perhaps the city street on which he grew up? A long, lazy summer day, playing kickball in the road, watching workmen in their bright jackets spread tarmac like cake icing, singing the old work songs Earthers had used to motivate themselves. Hi ho, hi ho…
Kira’s voice pulled me back. She sounded angry. “Why do you want to go there, anyway?”
I closed the door of the store cupboard. “We’ve been through this. It just feels… right.”
“You don’t even know what it’s like!”
“I’ve watched all the archive clips. I’ve read everything there is—”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re an idiot, Rosa. Wanting to go and live with savages, all because it smells pretty.”
I didn’t want to get into an argument. Not with a customer in the brainwave promoter. “I wonder what Sunny View will smell like. The recipe calls for—”
“So you’re applying for Earth transfer?”
“That’s next month.”
“Well,” I said. “We’d better get on and produce this scent. Sara’s our best customer: her review will have a big impact on our final grade. You can afford to coast, but I can’t.”
Before Kira could argue further, the light came on above the door of the brainwave promoter, letting us know the customer’s flashback was complete.
“How was that?” I asked, as I held the door open to allow the man to exit.
He looked a little dazed. They often do. “Wonderful,” he said, a smile breaking over his face. “Truly wonderful. You ladies are geniuses.”
“We’re still training,” I said. “But I’m glad you think so.”
As Kira escorted him out of the shop, I inhaled deeply, trying to catch the last hint of bitumen. Where had he been on his flashback? I wished I could have gone with him.
Kira’s grades would have let her choose any career on Utopia. She told me she picked the scentology placement because—unlike exterior maintenance—it didn’t pose any risk of her eyeballs being sucked out into vacuum.
Scentology was my whole world. Since my first whiff of petrichor (#8327) I was hooked. I loved the smell of freshly cut grass (#937) and the sweet scent of strawberries (#46). New car smell (#9375). Old book smell (#272). The fermenting aroma of overripe banana (#1000a). I’d never tasted a banana, but I could imagine what it was like. I was even partial to wet dog (#85798) which made Kira screw up her nose and say that maybe asphyxiation in deep space would be preferable, after all.
Utopia smelled of nothing. Literally nothing. The same nanobots that patrolled our blood to keep us healthy dwelt on our skin, our clothes, the surfaces we touched, sucking aromatic particles from the air and breaking them down. TopiWiki said it would be unbearable without this technology, the stink of bodies and their waste gradually filling the space. Even our food—a gel nutritionally optimised for our individual needs—smelled of barely anything, with a taste to match.
Sitting on Kira’s bunk, we sucked our gel packets while quizzing each other on organic compounds.
“What are the three functional groups in vanillin?”
“Ether, aldehyde, and hydroperoxide.”
Kira made a face. “No.”
“Oh, comets! I meant hydroxyl.”
“That’s better.” She crumpled her empty gel packet. “Shall we take a break?”
“I need to know this stuff,” I groaned.
“Why? You’re buzzing off to Earth, aren’t you?”
“Only if I get the grades,” I said.
Kira snorted. “Ironic. You only get to go to Earth if you first learn a bunch of science no one uses there.”
“Tell me about it.” I lay back on her bunk, staring up at the grey ceiling.
“I think it’s sad, Rosa. All the Earth-gens who come into the shop wanting to relive experiences from hundreds of years ago. Can’t they move on?”
“I guess not.” I closed my eyes, imagining clouds in a blue sky.
“It’s even sadder with you,” she said. “You were born here, on Utopia.”
“But I’m from Earth. We all are.”
“I’m not,” said Kira. “And neither are you.”
I sat up. “Why are you even studying scentology if you think it’s so lame? Why not pick another career?”
I shouldn’t have shouted. But she claimed to be my friend, while every day tearing down my dreams. Was I supposed to be OK with that?
She grabbed her tablet and scooted into the corner of the bunk with it, her knees drawn up. “No more studying today. I’m tired.”
“Oh, Kira, look, I’m sorry. Don’t be mad. I need you to test me on—”
“No, Rosa.” She lowered her eyes to the tablet, which started to play the music from her favorite game.
I picked up my tablet. “Want me to play too?”
She shook her head. Her eyes glistened.
I retreated to my own bunk and plugged my earphones in. Against a backdrop of ambient Earth sounds, I tried to study, but kept losing focus. What did an Earth forest smell like? Was #1078, ancient oak woodland, an accurate representation? Was the mossy floor warm or cool under the sole of the foot? No, wait. Earthers wore shoes. That would be another thing to get used to, after the transfer.
If I got the transfer.
Kira’s game sounds faded. I glanced over. She was crying, but I was too angry to go to her.
I came out of final exams with no idea whether I’d passed or failed. Either way, there was nothing I could do about it now. Part of our grades came from the work placements we did in final year, so I needed to knuckle down and impress Karim.
He’d been pleased with us so far. At the beginning, he’d hovered around, grabbing for my hand every time I pipetted a valuable compound, but he’d come to trust me. Most days, we ran the shop with no supervision other than the customer reports.
When Kira and I prepared #509421, even I had to admit that Sunny View Nursing Home smelled pretty bad.
“I hope she can afford it,” Kira said, wrinkling her nose as she stuffed the stopper into the vial. “We’ll never offload this onto anyone else.”
“She wants the flashback experience,” I said.
“What? Sara? Little Miss oh-no-I-don’t-have-enough-creds?”
I shrugged. “Maybe she’s been saving up.”
“Well, you can’t give her a free go on the promoter. We have to log every use. It’s not like slipping her the end of a bottle we weren’t going to use anyway.”
“Why’s she want a flashback on this? Smelling it is bad enough.”
“She says it’s the last time she saw her mother.”
Kira scoffed. “Earthers.”
I pressed my lips together. I’d always liked the idea of having a family. Sara said I was like the granddaughter she never had, which was nice, but I didn’t really know what that meant. Kira said Sara only pretended to like me because I gave her samples of scents we’d made up in lessons, or dregs left over from other customers. I said I didn’t care as long as she kept telling me stories about Earth. But it wasn’t the same as family, was it? They shared your DNA, which meant they had to love you. They weren’t random picks from a bank of frozen embryos selected for their diversity. Blood is thicker than water. Isn’t that what Earthers said?
I had Kira, who had been my best friend since nursery, but she’d forget about me when she figured out what she wanted to do with her life. All I had was Earth. The pictures that appeared in my head when I mixed up those old scents. Smiling people clipping grass with shiny silver scissors. Pausing to pluck lemons from the trees. Juice dribbling down their chins as they bit through the fragrant rind.
Sara arrived wearing her funny old clothes. Those tough blue trousers Earth-gens called jeans. Studs in her ears and eyebrows. A strappy pink top that showed off the muscles she worked hard for in the gym. White trainers. She always wore shoes, even though there was no need for them in Utopia’s bot-cleaned environment.
When she pressed her thumb against the tablet to validate the purchase, an error flashed up.
“Insufficient creds,” Kira said, shooting an I-told-you-so glance at me. “We can sell you the scent, but no flashback.”
Tears appeared in the corners of Sara’s eyes. I was surprised she could still cry; tear ducts tended to dry up after the fourth or fifth bot repair. She wiped them away with her tattooed forearm. How old was she anyway? Four hundred years? Four-fifty?
“I’d hoped to see my mother again.” She stared at me, chewing her lip.
“I can’t help,” I said. “I need to save creds. I need supplies for Earth transfer.”
“Oh,” she said. “You’re going ahead with that?”
“Yes.” I’d told her about it plenty of times. Did no one believe I really wanted to go?
“Well…” She drummed her purple-painted nails on the counter. “Wouldn’t it be helpful to see Earth? Before you commit?”
“How?” I frowned. “I’ve never been to Earth. Even if I went in the promoter, I wouldn’t have any memories to—”
“I have memories,” said Sara. “You could come with me.”
Kira and I exchanged a glance.
“Does that work?” I asked. Until recently, we’d just sold fragrances; the brainwave promoter was new tech, and we’d never tried putting more than one person in there.
Kira frowned. “There’s no reason why not… the field is created and projected… but Rosa…”
I’d already pressed my thumb against the tablet to confirm the purchase. Screw the cost. I could economize on supplies for the journey.
Sara smiled. Kira, shaking her head, started up the machine and ushered us both inside.
I sat on the padded bench beside Sara, so close I could feel the rough fabric of her pants against my bare shin. I folded my skirt between my knees and pressed them together.
“Ready?” Kira asked, via the intercom.
“Yes,” said Sara, in a wavery voice.
I heard Kira load the scent into the machine. Sometimes, the bottles are fiddly to get into the slot, but this one clunked home. Soon, a fusty, bitter smell became overpowering. Ew. Did we mess up the synthesis? But I barely had time to wrinkle my nose before the machine melted away and Sara’s flashback took over.
A dingy room materialized around us, the walls a colour somewhere between beige and peach. In the bed lay a figure so shrunken that at first I didn’t notice her. When she groaned, I jumped.
Sara dashed to the bedside. But wait, Sara was still sitting beside me. She leaned forward, her hands gripping her knees. The woman at the bedside must be a part of the memory. She was plumper than the Sara next to me, and her tanned face looked genuinely youthful, rather than regenerated.
“It’s me, Mum. It’s Sara.” Young Sara smoothed the sheets. Finally, my eyes adjusted and I made out a face on the pillow. I recoiled. I’d seen pictures of old humans on EarthWiki, and thought it lovely how their smiles crinkled their whole faces. But this face wasn’t just lined; it seemed to have sunk in on itself.
Her voice was a hoarse whisper. “I don’t know a Sara.”
Had I messed up the synthesis? Had we somehow given Sara the wrong flashback? But the young woman smoothed the hair of the old one and said calmly, “I’m your daughter.”
“Sara,” said the woman. “Yes. I remember.”
“How are you feeling today?”
“Hurts.” The old woman grimaced. “Pain… all the time.”
Young Sara fetched water for the old woman. “Sit up,” she said. “Just a little. So you can drink.”
She rearranged the pillows and hoisted the woman a little higher up the bed. I covered my nose with my hand. The smell was nauseating. It resembled the odor that briefly appeared when using the toilet, before the bowl sucked it away. This was nothing like the Earth our fragrances hinted at.
I looked out of the window. Rain, lashing. Grey buildings. Grey sky.
Young Sara tried to hold a glass of water to her mother’s cracked lips. The old woman pushed it away, whimpering.
“Mum!” said Sara. “It’s me. Relax.”
The old woman flailed her bony fist into her daughter’s face, sending her staggering backwards. With no nanobots to stem the flow, there was an appalling amount of blood. Beside me, Sara touched her nose and winced.
“Leave me alone!” the woman screeched. “I hate you!”
It’s a person, I tried to tell myself. Like you, or Sara, or Kira.
That only made it worse.
Like forcing myself awake from a nightmare, I defocused my eyes from the grey room, imagining the bright interior of the brainwave promoter until it shimmered back into view.
The stink hung around, but it was faint now. I inhaled deeply, glad of the nanobots cleaning my lungs.
Sara woke a few moments later. She dabbed at her eyes with a scrap of tissue from her pocket and then turned to me.
“Are you OK?” she asked. “I’m sorry if that wasn’t what you expected.”
“What was that place?” I said.
“The nursing home where my mother died.”
“But why was she in pain? And confused? Why did no one help her?”
She smiled, like she was a visitor to the nursery encountering a particularly cute child. “Rosa, they did what they could.”
“But she could have had treatments?” I said. “Nanobots. Regeneration.”
“Banned on Earth. Overpopulation.”
“Couldn’t you have brought her with you? To Utopia?”
“I tried. She said she was born an Earther, and she’d die one.”
“Is Earth worth dying for?”
“You tell me.”
I looked at my hands, imagining the cannula that would filter out the nanobots before I was permitted to board the transfer vessel. I pictured the skin wrinkling over the years, becoming dry and papery.
Shaking away the image, I pressed the button by the door. Kira opened it.
“Are you done?” She looked worried, but just seeing her made me feel better.
Sara patted my shoulder. “Good luck.” Then she made her way out of the store.
Kira opened her mouth, clearly full of questions.
“Don’t,” I said.
I took the rest of the day off. When I came back the next day, Kira didn’t ask me about the flashback. Instead, she helped me mix the scents, gently correcting my mistakes. When customers arrived, she dealt with them, allowing me to hide away in the back of the shop, with all the comforts I could find there. Roses. Cut grass. Toffee.
The fragrances didn’t bring me the joy they usually did. I was searching for the lie in every one.
We didn’t see Sara again. For weeks, I thought about sending her a message, or even looking her up in our customer records and going to see her. But I didn’t. Earth-gens are funny about privacy. If she complained that I’d misused the records to intrude on her private life, I could fail my apprenticeship.
When our exam results came back, my grades were far better than I expected. Easily enough to apply for transfer. I filled in the form, trying not to think about the flashback experience. So some aspects of Earth life weren’t perfect. So what? That was no reason to give up on it. No reason to reject it in favor of a restricted, sterile life on Utopia.
Tapping Submit still felt like signing my own death warrant.
I kept myself busy. I tried not to think about Earth, but it crept in. I grieved the image of the place that I had cultivated in my mind: the rose gardens and wild strawberries, the salty sea and the fresh mountain air.
“Have you heard about the transfer?” Kira asked, wiping the pristine workbench.
I pretended my pipette was blocked. The message had arrived early that morning. I’d closed it and put the tablet aside, then gone to the bathroom. I didn’t want Kira, playing video games on her bunk, to know. As the toilet sucked my waste away, I’d caught a very faint scent of ammonia. The old woman, trapped in her broken body, flashed through my mind, making me shiver.
Kira came over and took the pipette from me. “Rosa? Are you OK?”
The message had said I had to respond within three days, or the offer would be retracted. All day I’d been turning it over in my mind. This was what I’d always wanted. And yet…
“Yes,” I said. “I’m fine. I—”
“I’m going to apply too,” blurted Kira. “So I can come with you.”
She bit her lower lip, but it still quivered. Her eyes burned into mine. My heart raced as I thought back over the months she’d spent trying to talk me out of leaving. All the times she’d called me an idiot. Since Kira had come top of the class in first grade, I’d been afraid of losing her. I never realized she felt the same.
“You’d hate it,” I said.
“It wouldn’t be so bad. Like you said, there’s romance to hardship.” She squeezed my hand. “And I’d be with you.”
Until now, the decision over the transfer had seemed impossible. I couldn’t give up the dream of a lifetime, but nor could I leave everything and go off into the unknown. With Kira’s hand warm on mine, I knew what to do.
“They rejected my application,” I said. “My grades aren’t good enough.”
“Yeah. I got the message this morning.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. It sounded genuine. “Are you going to reapply next year?”
I shook my head. “No. I talked to Karim. He says I can stay on in the shop.”
“Still living with your nose in a bottle, huh?” She was smiling, that jokey smile, although her eyes were wet.
“I like scento—”
She laughed. “I’m kidding,” she said. “I’m staying at the shop too. At least until I figure out what I want to do with my life.”
“Why? You don’t care about scentology.”
“I’m coming around to it.”
“But you—” I didn’t get to finish before her lips pressed against mine.
Before that kiss, I’d never been close enough to another person to notice it, but it turns out that despite the nanobots’ best efforts, we aren’t completely odorless. Kira smells a little like #937, a little like #272, and maybe just a tiny bit like wet dog, not that I’d ever tell her.
In our double bunk onboard the Utopia, I bury my face in her neck, breathing her in, never wanting to let go. Earth can keep its fragrances. This is where I belong.
Copyright 2020 by Hannah Whiteoak