The Little Voice
Neil James Hudson
I knew I could never bring up Kylie properly. Even her name was rubbish. I knew that: the little voice in my head told me so.
Kylie! it exclaimed. What a rubbish start! She'll finish up stacking shelves in a supermarket.
But what else could I do? Any name I could think of was equally rubbish, and I had a million and two other ways of screwing her up before she could even talk, so did it matter about the name?
You should have been sterilised, said the voice. You've ruined your own life. Now you want to ruin your daughter's.
And it was true. I'd never wanted to become pregnant in the first place: I just knew that I could never get the contraception right, so I didn't bother. The sex was terrible, and it was my fault, although frankly he was no better.
By morning he'd already gone. He left me a note, bless him. "I can't do this," it read. "It's not you, it's me." But we both knew it was me.
That's another one you've got rid of, the voice had said. But that's what happens when the beer goggles wear off.
I'm digressing, but is it any wonder? I'm not a writer, and I'll be no better at telling this story than I am at anything else. The point is, I had a decision to make, and I knew I was going to get it wrong.
I had to decide whether to give Kylie a neg-chip.
I first met Dr. Snowdon on the other side of the railing of a motorway bridge, which I crossed every morning on my way to work. Naturally nothing was going very fast underneath us--why bother?--but if he'd stepped forward, as he was clearly planning, there wouldn't be much left of him. I watched him for a while, not wanting to walk past. I'd seen people in this state before, and I knew that I wasn't any help.
But that was the thing about the neg-chip, it got you both ways. Whenever I had an impulse to help, it told me that I'd only make things worse. But once I'd decided not to, it told me what a shit I was for walking away.
So this time I walked slowly towards the man on the bridge, knowing that I was only going to worsen a bad situation, and said, "are you all right?"
"Of course I'm not all right," he shouted back. "I'm just about to kill myself. What would be all right about that?"
I felt utterly stupid. "I just wondered if there was anything I could do," I said uselessly.
"You could give me a push," he said. He was too scared to jump, but seemed ready to blame me for his inability.
I actually went towards him with my hands out before I realised what I was doing. I put them down again. "Why do you want to jump?" I asked, desperate for something to say.
He looked at me as if I smelt bad. You do, said the voice, but fortunately the man spoke again before it could get going. "You know that chip in your head? The one that talks to you?" I said nothing, not wanting to sound stupid again. "I put it there."
"You did?" I said, baffled.
"Not me personally," he said. "But that's what I do."
I looked at him more closely. His hair was cropped short, a sort of orangey sandy colour. The hair on his face was much the same, but I couldn't tell if it was a beard or if he just hadn't shaved recently. He looked as if he hadn't been sleeping much either.
"Christ," I said. "How can you live with yourself?"
He stared at me. "What? How does that help?"
"Sorry," I said. I knew I should have left him.
"Seriously, you're not in the Samaritans are you? Because you're the worst counsellor I've ever met in my life." He was becoming really cross now. "I mean, what is wrong with people these days? All you needed to say was something like, 'Oh it's not that bad, never mind, let me buy you a coffee,' and then you could have had the police here before you needed to open your purse."
"I said I was sorry."
He climbed back over the railing and confronted me. "I could be dead now because of you." I don't think I've ever seen anyone so angry. "Is that what you wanted? Would that make you happy?"
"I work for a counsellor," I said.
I'd never forgiven my parents for giving me a chip in the first place. Without it, I might have got further on in the world. Now I was just a receptionist, sitting behind a desk day after day, fielding appointments for Dr. Croydon. That was a joke--his patients came in, miserable and finished, and they left in the same state, only poorer. Heaven knows what he was actually counselling them to do. I sometimes wondered if he was actually daring them to obey the voices and jump off the nearest bridge. But that would be bad for business, and many of his patients returned.
Dr. Croydon himself--he would often tell me to call him Peter, but I was never brave enough--was something of an enigma. He'd gone bald, with two banks of dark hair on either side of a dried-up river of scalp. This didn't seem to bother him. I sometimes wondered if he'd never had a chip himself, but he'd shown me his scar, and had even let me feel it under the skin behind his ear. I would have been far too embarrassed to let anyone feel mine. And yet, although much of the time he had little faith in his ability to cure people, he sometimes seemed to forget. Sometimes he had this air about him, almost as if he had a self-belief that had become visible. And so the patients shuffled through the door, and Dr. Croydon allowed them to talk about their miserable lives without contributing much himself, and then they left, but sometimes he'd have a look of satisfaction as he passed me their notes.
I sometimes felt like going to him with my own problems, but it was that satisfaction I couldn't bear. What would I do if I were cured?
He was surprisingly keen to have Dr. Snowdon as a patient. I'd expected he'd bawl me out for increasing his workload, but I suppose they had so much in common. Maybe they were just talking shop in there. Maybe when Dr. Snowdon left, he'd take Dr. Croydon with him, lead him to the bridge, and they'd push each other.
Dr. Snowdon left thoughtfully, and Dr. Croydon looked satisfied.
Kylie wouldn't eat in the evening. You're giving her the wrong food, said the voice. You should never have had a child. Still, she was lucky to have a mother. Mine threw me out when I was young. I could remember her if I wanted to, but why bother?
I wondered if I should ask Dr. Snowdon if he could put Kylie's chip in himself. He didn't seem happy in his work, but he might give me a discount.
But there was also the idea that I might not do it at all. I had no idea where this thought had come from. It's because you're a bad mother. You just want to ruin her life.
But that also seemed to be the reason why I might want to give her a chip in the first place. It was all so confusing. Perhaps I should talk to Dr. Snowdon about it.
But the next day, Dr. Croydon asked me into his consulting room, as if I were one of his clients.
"Do sit down," he said.
"Thank you, Doctor." I perched nervously on the edge of his couch.
"Okay," I said, and resolved not to address him by name for the rest of the day.
"Interesting man, Dr. Snowdon."
"I just hope he doesn't kill himself." It will be your fault if he does, said the voice.
"Hmm." Dr. Croydon seemed to have difficulty getting to the point. "You have a daughter, don't you?"
"Kylie, she's nearly three," I said. No thanks to me.
"Oh." He looked surprised. "Soon be fitting her with a chip then?"
"Maybe. I mean, yes. I suppose. Yes." Duh: make your mind up.
"Tell me," said Dr. Croydon. "Do you know why we have these chips?"
"Aliens," I said.
"What?" He looked startled. "Of course it's not aliens."
I felt like a child. A lot of people thought it was aliens, it wasn't just me. But there you go. I'd been given the opportunity to show how dumb I was, and I'd taken it. "Sorry," I said.
"And stop apologising."
"Sorry," I said, and then realising what I'd done, said, "Sorry."
I could see he was starting to lose patience with me. "You're not too young to remember the war?" he asked. "The civil war."
"I remember," I lied. I knew about the war, of course, but it was history, from before my chip was fitted, and I didn't like to think back to it.
"We nearly won. Do you know what our secret weapon was?"
"No," I said. Don't say anything else. You'll only make an idiot of yourself.
"The pos-chips," he said. "A pos-chip is just like a neg-chip, except it goes the other way. Our chips told us we could do anything, that we were invincible, that we were in the right. Nothing could stop us."
"But we still lost," I said.
"We did," he said. "At the last moment, they worked out how to reprogram the chips. Suddenly we told ourselves that we couldn't win. And we were right. Then after the war, they made us keep the neg-chips. Partly as a punishment, I think, and partly to keep us down. They made sure we could never cause trouble again."
"Who's they?" I asked.
"That's the question, isn't it? There must be an elite out there somewhere: a group of people without the chips, who make sure that the rest of us are playing by the rules. A group whose job it is to stop us from achieving anything."
I sighed. "I can tell you exactly why we have these chips," I said. "It's because we're too damned crap to do otherwise."
It seemed obvious to me, but Dr. Croydon looked surprised. "How do you work that out?" he said.
"These chips are wrong," I said. "We know full well what we're doing to ourselves. It's like suicide, but you still have to live your life. And then we pass it on to our kids. If we had the slightest shred of self-respect and decency, we just wouldn't do it. But what happens? Whenever we think of it, the little voice comes out of the chip and tells us that we don't have that self-respect. And we agree, and we carry on with it. We have the chips because we deserve them."
"So you think it just goes round in a vicious circle? We have the chips because we have the chips?"
It had made sense to me, but now it just sounded stupid. I shrugged and wished he'd have his conversation with someone who was up to it.
"Then why are you going to give your daughter a chip? Why don't you just leave her to be free?"
Now I was cross. He was telling me how to be a parent. I could screw that up on my own, thank you. "Do you know what happens to kids when they get these chips?" I said. "Do you know what they do? Nothing. Nothing ever happens to them any more, they don't do anything. They can't fail. Nothing hurts them. Did you hear about that girl in Texas?" I could see by his face that he had. "They had her chip removed. With it, they took her excuse. Suddenly everything she'd never done, all her inabilities and failures, it all became her responsibility. Everyone else could blame it on what had been put inside her head. She didn't have that. So what she did do?"
"She killed her parents," Dr. Croydon admitted.
"That's what your freedom gets you. I couldn't care less if Kylie does kill me, but do you really want to give her that kind of life?"
"No," he said, and looked at me strangely. "I want to give it to you."
When Dr. Snowdon returned to the surgery the next day, he seemed a different man. "So you didn't kill yourself!" I blurted out.
"No thanks to you," he said, although there was the trace of a smile on his lips.
He stared at me. "What?"
I knew I should stop digging, but I couldn't stop myself. "If you wanted to kill yourself because you were installing the neg-chips, and I didn't stop you, what changed? If you're still doing it, you should still want to kill yourself."
You absolute idiot. You're supposed to work for a counsellor. Do you want to lose him all his clients?
"I haven't decided not to kill myself," he said. "I've just granted myself a stay of execution. Thanks to the marvellous treatment I've been receiving here--" and here he looked at me accusingly--"I've decided to leave it for a month. I'll tell you what though--if I do decide to jump, I'll invite you. Maybe you can talk me down."
At this point Dr. Croydon buzzed through and said he was ready. Dr. Snowdon walked into the consulting room without waiting for me to tell him, and I put my head in my hands, reflecting on my own failures.
Dr. Snowdon was a failure as well, I thought. His continued existence represented only cowardice, not a cure. I wondered if I'd ever be brave enough to kill myself. I knew I wouldn't: I would have done it already. I was just staying here, making everyone else miserable.
If you did jump off the bridge though, you'd be free of Kylie. Someone else could decide about the chip.
I sat bolt upright. What had I just thought? I knew I was a bad mother, but that was appalling.
I know I'm going into too much detail here. I said I'm not a writer. But I just wanted to say what was on my mind when Dr. Snowdon opened the door of the consulting room and asked me to join them.
"The neg-chip," said Dr. Snowdon, as if this were his own practice, "doesn't beam these suggestions out of nowhere. It finds these thoughts among your own brainwaves. Without its help, these thoughts might well bubble up: but they might equally be unnoticed among the morass of random thoughts. Or they might be deliberately ignored. Or perhaps they would be examined, considered, and rejected. Or if not rejected, they might be used as a stepping stone for self-improvement. And even if not, so much depends on mood. They might be accepted at a low moment, but laughed at when we're feeling a bit stronger."
"I don't understand," I said. You don't understand anything.
"Yes, you do," he said. "But your chip has told you that you don't, and you'd rather agree with it because it feels safer."
"You'll have to forgive Dr. Snowdon," said Dr. Croydon. I was grateful for his intervention. "The new converts are always the holiest."
"Converts to what?" I asked, frowning.
"I don't suppose it matters," said Dr. Croydon tentatively, "but I should say that what we're about to discuss is in the strictest confidence."
"It always is," I said, baffled. In fact it was only confidential because I never got to hear it, and didn't care much.
"As you might have wondered, there isn't much that a counsellor can do. If people are having negative or even suicidal thoughts, it's because of a piece of hardware near their right temple. The best I can hope to achieve is to help them live with these impulses."
"Why do you even try?" Why try anything? It only causes trouble.
To my surprise, he smiled. "One has to earn a crust," he said. "And in any case, under certain circumstances, when I have a client whom I think can handle it, or whom I can trust to keep his mouth shut, or if he might be useful to me--" He threw a glance at Dr. Snowdon as he said this. "--I can refer them elsewhere."
I groaned inwardly as Dr. Snowdon interrupted again. "The chip can be reprogrammed, don't you see?"
No, I didn't. "What on earth for?" I said.
"Just as it can filter out the positive thoughts, so it can filter out the negative ones. It can leave you with just the positive, or even be switched off altogether."
I still didn't see. "What on earth for?" I said again.
Dr. Croydon sighed. "The trouble is, you don't know until you've done it," he said.
"You've had your chip reprogrammed!" I said, amazed at my stupidity.
He fingered behind his ear. "Of course. That's the best thing about it. No one can tell the difference from the outside."
I was way over my head, and I knew it. All I wanted to do was run. "What's this got to do with me?" I said.
Dr. Croydon talked to me as if I was a child, but then I was starting to feel like one. "We want you to have your chip switched off."
"What?" I said. "I can't. Why me? I'm not worth it."
"It's not about you," snapped Dr. Snowdon. "It's about your child."
"Kylie?" You knew you couldn't protect her. "Leave her alone. She's having a chip."
Dr. Croydon tried to calm me down. "Relax. No one's going to do anything without your consent. It's entirely your decision."
"She's having a chip," I repeated. I hadn't, in fact, decided until this moment, but now I was sure of it. I expected the voice in my head to tell me that the decision was wrong, that I was too hopeless a mother to protect her even from the neg-chip. But it didn't. Instead, for the first time in my life, I felt reassurance that I was doing the right thing. I knew that I hadn't deserved the freedom that the doctors were talking about. And didn't Kylie share my genes? And wouldn't I bring her up the same hopeless way that I'd been brought up? Perhaps Dr. Croydon was right, perhaps there was an elite out there without the chips. But we weren't part of that elite. We were born for the chips.
"But how do you know that's what you feel?" asked Dr. Croydon, and once again I felt stupid in the presence of these men. "You have a neg-chip controlling your thoughts. Of course it's going to make you want to pass on the neg-chip. What we want to know is, what would you decide if you were free of it? Is it only the chip that makes you want to pass it on, or is it there in the human psyche?"
"But if the neg-chip controls my thoughts..." I said.
"It doesn't," insisted Dr. Snowdon. "It merely amplifies certain of your thoughts, at the expense of others.
"...then it won't let me decide to reprogramme it."
Dr. Croydon now became especially earnest. "That's why you especially need to break it now," he said. "Whatever we do can be reversed. If you decide you're happier with a neg-chip, and that your daughter should have one, that's what will happen. But then at least you'll know you'll right. But you'll have to over-ride the chip now, just so you know whether or not you should have done."
His circles of logic were giving me a headache. You never were any good at intellectual stuff, said the voice. You know you can't make this decision. Just give up. Just say no and go back to your miserable life.
"I need to go home," I said.
Kylie had been sick, and the baby-sitter hadn't bothered to clear it up. I put the telly on for her, and sat with my head in my hands.
"What will you be when you grow up?" I asked her, although she didn't understand. "A killer? A thief? Or will you just jump off a bridge like Dr. Snowdon?"
She sat on the carpet singing to herself. I didn't even know if she was mentally normal. After all, her parents hadn't really given her the most promising start. I was an idiot, and what of her father? I suppose he'd at least had the sense to get out.
"Or perhaps you'll become a surgeon, and give people these neg-chips. Would you like that, Kylie? Would you like to make thousands of people feel worthless?"
I realised it was only moral cowardice that was stopping me from taking part in this experiment. Of course it was right that we should try. But there was no point asking me to do it: I was too useless.
On the screen the newsreader miserably read out a list of crimes. If I were a good mother, I thought, I'd do what was best for Kylie. But I wasn't: and I had no idea what would be best. How on earth could I make the decision?
And then I realised that I'd already made it.
Dr. Snowdon gave me a pre-med. It made me feel drowsy. In fact, it was a feeling so enjoyable that I felt guilty. I hadn't known this bliss for ages.
It was just as well though because I would have been terrified without it. He'd shaved the side of my temple, although he'd assured me that it would grow back quickly, and that the incision wouldn't be a big one. I realised that I'd never asked him how he was going to reprogram the chip, and I had a vision of him poking around inside my skull with a screwdriver.
Dr. Croydon came to wish me good luck. "Am I going to need it?" I said, suddenly worried in spite of my condition.
"I'm sure there won't be a problem," he said. "You're in good hands."
"My hands," said Dr. Snowdon. "Your life is in my hands. Still, what goes around come around, eh?"
And as he put me to sleep, I heard a voice say, you've really screwed up this time.
I was awake a few minutes before I realised I was awake. The bed was uncomfortable and I felt cold. I felt my temple: there was a dressing wrapped around my head. I felt beneath me. There was no bed.
Groggily I sat up. I still felt half asleep, but I knew that I wasn't dreaming. I wasn't in a bed: beneath me was cold concrete.
I blinked, and shaded my eyes. I was lying, fully clothed, in a car park.
I gave myself a few minutes before I made it to my feet, supporting myself against a wall. I didn't recognise this place, and staggered to the main gate.
I was sick on the ground, then wandered around lost. Everyone would think I was drunk. If this was life without a neg-chip, I didn't want it. I certainly wouldn't wish it on Kylie.
I found my way to a row of shops, and was able to orient myself from there. The last thing I remembered was Dr. Snowdon's surgery. I was about three miles away. I had no money on me, so I carried on walking. I became less unsteady as time went on, and probably passed for normal by the time I reached the surgery. It was closed.
Sighing, I turned round. I considered going back to work, but it was too far. Instead, I headed back to my own flat.
As soon as I was there I tried to phone Dr. Croydon, but he didn't answer either at work or at home. I couldn't reach Dr. Snowdon either. I was exhausted, went back to bed, and slept through the day.
The next day I showed up for work. I went in early and waited outside for Dr. Croydon. As soon as he saw me he got straight back in his car and started the engine. I ran up and pounded on the window.
"Keep away from me," he said.
"What's going on?" I asked desperately.
"I said keep away," he said. "It was all lies. We don't reprogram chips, it can't be done. It was just a hoax."
"What have you done to me?" I said, and sat on the bonnet. He stared at me, wondering if he should ram me against the nearest tree. Finally he wound the window down.
"I said there was an elite. A group that keeps the rest of us in line. Well, now I know there is. We opened you up, and you didn't have a chip."
"What?" I said. "But you know I've got a chip."
"You never had a chip," he said. "Now get off my bonnet: I'm going home." He wound the window up.
"But why do I feel so worthless?" I cried. But I got off his bonnet, and Dr. Croydon drove off, answering none of my questions.
They were right to fear me. The others will have them closed down when they find out what's going on, and they will find out. They'll find out from me.
I can remember my mother. I always refused to, but the more I think, the more comes back to me. I'll be able to track her down. Anyway, she's probably looking for me.
It will be strange to see her again. Perhaps she can give me some answers. Perhaps she can tell me why they did this to the world. Why everyone else had to be put down so savagely. What they're getting out of it.
More importantly, perhaps she can tell me what happened to me. Why she brought me up this way. If she'd just given me the chip, I could have blamed it for everything. But she left me free. I don't feel worthless because of a chip: I genuinely am worthless.
She'll give me a lot of answers before she dies.
Kylie cried when she had her chip, the little cow. Let her get used to it. Life sucks, so she may as well learn the truth while she's still young. At least she'll never have to face up to the real reality, the reality that lies behind the chip. As long as she has the chip, she has the excuse. It's the best that a mother can give.
And then I passed her on to a relative. I don't suppose she'll ever remember me now. Why should she? She'll be better off where she is. I should never have had a child.
Neither should your mother, said the little voice in my head, and I couldn't have agreed more.