The Filter Mask
I am queuing. I know it is pointless. I am desperate. I have my child with me-as if that will make a difference. I had nowhere to leave it. I call it, ‘it’ because I am aware of its gender but not its provenance. Even having had it with me for 5 years I am not sure if it is fully human or not. No one gets that assurance when a child is allocated to them. Children are allocated by lottery. When you reach a certain age your name goes in to the ballot and if it is pulled out- you get a child and all the responsibility that goes with it. There is no choice. There has been controversy this year as more women are allocated children than men. There have been arguments on both sides, full of presumptions around gender and parenting. I have not followed it.
A child is detrimental in a lot of ways, it takes time and money and you have to be able to give something of yourself. If I am going to be honest and that is my intention, after all this time the gender pay gap still exists, even between robots. All that technology and they haven’t found a way to fix it. I can only know what ‘it’ is when it comes of age. then I can ask its percentage. A machine is bound to tell you the percentage of its human capacity if you ask it, unless that capacity is over 90%.
I look at everyone else in the queue. It is impossible to know who is what. You can ask, and as I said they must tell you, unless they are over 90%. If they are over 90% they are considered human, but the 90% is a measurement of capacity, of function and not components as such. Components are a small part of the measure but they have limited impact for the under 90%. A machine that is capable of 90% of human activity and emotion is human regardless of the fact that it is a machine. It seems right, yet somehow wrong.
The pollution is bad today. It is bad everyday. I am struggling to breathe. I need a mask to filter the air. I have fully functioning human lungs. I am 100% human and I don’t mind telling you that. It is not a secret. I am not ashamed. I need a mask. I have a child to look after, human or not, they both take almost the same amount of care. I need to breathe clean air. I need a proper mask, with a proper filter, not this paper thing I am wearing this morning.
Masks are rationed, fully functioning filtering masks are given out according to need. That is why I am queuing. The government is responsible for mask allocation. There is always a queue. I am maybe fifteenth in line and I was here an hour before it even opened. I am getting closer. I can see the counter now. The counter attendant asks a series of questions but there is only one that counts. It is about need. But I can hardly breathe. I can clearly see the three or four in front of me now. He got a mask. She didn’t. She did. I focus on their skin. It is so often the only real way to tell. But the three or four in front of me, they could be human, they might not be. I can’t tell. I am just concentrating on breathing. Two more. One more.
It is me.
Standing in front of him.
He looks at me. Smiles. I can’t smile back because my paper mask is covering my mouth. I remove it. Immediately I cough. Everybody who comes here is lined up and wanting the same thing but still I have to say it. I say tentatively, ‘I need a mask’.
He scratches his chin. I cough again. I should have been firmer.
He looks at me. ‘Why?’ he says.
‘Because I can’t breathe’ I say.
He looks @ me, through me. I have worn a sort of plastic makeup this morning to look less human-on my face, on my hands. I am otherwise all covered. He looks at me, at my eyes, asks to see my teeth, looks at my fingernails. These are all signs. I try not to show nerves. My child, the ‘it’ is clinging to my leg beside me.
‘Percentage?’ he says. I am not a machine. I am over 90% so am not obliged to answer. I do. I do not hide it.
‘100%.’ I say. I hesitate and try to calm myself. ‘I need a mask,’ I say again, firmer this time.
He looks at me. Raises what passes for eyebrows but the plastic wrinkles oddly. He is a machine. He now knows I am 100% organic, my whole body is organic. I am fully human. There is no machine that is 100%. I saw a 97% once, most impressive but they are still off the golden number.
He responds. The voice has no emotion. He has switched modes, from charming to neutral. ‘There are others,’ he says flatly, ‘with a greater need.’
This is the response I expected.
‘But I can’t breathe, who is more desperate than me?’ And I am desperate now. I can hear the pleading in my own voice. I cough and cough again.
The machine who was behind me in the queue is now beside me. He is clearly in supercilious mode. ‘Like me,’ the machine beside me says, ’I need the mask to ensure that clean air goes in to cool my system. My lungs are not organic like yours. My system is not organic and therefore I can’t afford all that grit and pollution to go into it. Your body can cleanse itself. Mine will cost more to cleanse. Your lungs can be replaced with mechanised ones, I would need my entire circuitry cleaned and replaced if the wrong particles get in. Or worse I could overheat and catch fire.’ His voice was going up and down with each sentence but not in quite the right places.
He is getting louder and more emotional. ‘I could self combust’ he announces indignantly, loudly, so that others behind now watch on.
I turn to look at him. ‘What percentage are you?’ I say. I know he is not over 90% because he has no empathy, he has no control over those emotions and isn’t sure which ones go where. He must answer. He cannot even hesitate. The number comes out of his mouth.
‘78%’ he says.
‘And you need it for what?’ and I am losing control now and I know it, ‘To cool down. I can’t breathe.’ I want to shout it but overwhelming emotion makes humans look bad. I need to stay in control. There is a whole industry around emotional suppression. Humans and machines must live together. They cannot become completely like us so it would be best if we become more like them. Indeed if you want, they will try and insert ‘modes’ into you. This is not an approved medical procedure.
78% smiles at me. It is completely random behaviour. He is going to speak again. I can see the one behind the counter, contemplating whether he can cut him off. He chooses not to. I can see him trying to think of which mode would be best.
78% starts talking again, ‘You should get those lungs replaced, ‘go metal’ or, ‘choose bionic’, ‘shape up to silicon’-you must have seen the t shirts. Then you will be 78% or 84 % or something and you can get a mask as well. It is a simple question of numbers, I am more expensive to fix, to replace therefore I have priority.’
‘And what if I want to keep my lungs, what if I want to stay 100% human.’ I say clearly and calmly, but I want to yell.
The one behind the counter has heard this conversation a 1000 times before. I can tell. He switches quickly from neutral mode back to charming mode and smiles sardonically, as if I was a silly little girl. He cannot be over 90%, that facial expression was wrong for the circumstance. I am tempted to ask him. 78% is talking still
78% says, ‘that would not be rational. Definitely not rational. Get yourself new lungs and you can have a mask.’
None of it makes sense. This stupid rule that rations masks but when these ones are rendered useless by the air I can get new lungs and I can have a mask. It is government gone mad. It is us versus them. I put the paper mask back over my face. I will try again tomorrow, next week, at another station where they give out masks.
I grab my child’s hand and walk out.
Behind me I can hear the counter attendant. ‘Your name, miss, give me your name.’
I do not respond. I had the plastic make up on so they will not have my finger print. I had lenses in my eyes so they would not be able to scan my retina. They are not allowed to use my child to identify me. They will not be able to identify me. They do not even know how many of us there are. How many of us are 100%, how many of us survive. I don’t know. They don’t know. They never will. No one wants to count. We might be gone forever, we simply do not know.