I had woken up feeling concerned. It was like a sudden lucid moment in a coma, or like noticing you had actually died and were aware of your corpse. I wasn’t sure what day it was. I couldn’t feel anything inside me – no joy, no fear, nothing.
As usual, even before both my eyes were properly open, I instinctively reached across to the dresser and opened my Device. It was my morning and night ritual – like turning on and off a light switch. It scanned me over and commented immediately on my appearance, using a judgmental tone of voice. It understood from observing me over the years in my videocalls that I was more intimidated by younger men, so it was a male voice of someone in their early twenties.
“Sam, you look terrible this morning. Place your thumb on the pad, please.”
“No need to get pissy,” I replied.
All Devices were required by law to look out for biometric signs users may have contracted Ebola25. It was the most deadly disease humanity had ever encountered, a highly infectious airborne strain of a flesh eating virus – the worst mutation in history. It had killed half the world’s population. After seconds, the diagnosis came in.
“You’re healthy, don’t worry,” said the voice reassuringly, this time an older female. “You must just need a bit of exercise, or maybe you just need a bit of air? Air is the most precious thing you can consume, without it you die in three minutes, whereas it takes up to five days to die from not consuming water.”
“Yes… Slightly too random, Device – tone down education algorithm please.”
It beeped once to confirm.
I felt despair at a computer trying to explain to me what my body needed the most.
“How long till you die of isolation?” I asked, joking.
“You can not die of isolation unless you a deprived of essential bodily needs.”
“I see…” I smirked.
I shuffled out of bed and turned to the wall mirror to face my true self and realised the handheld tablet was right about my appearance. I had bloodshot eyes, a rough stubble and the skin outlining my orbits was dark and sunken. My naked body was pale as milk, like I lacked moving blood and my hair was a mess, but then I had not been out of the house for a week. It just felt like too much effort. I blew out a breath and shut my eyes again, sitting on the end of the bed. Device was right, I needed to go outside.
I would dress, eat a modest breakfast and then take the walk across the road to the lane and the woods, the only real ‘indulgent’ journey I took during the lockdown, which was now dragging into its third monotonous year. I grabbed my transparent fishbowl-like helmet and attached it to my specialised particle-retarding jacket. I looked like one of those 50’s comic astronauts about to walk out onto an alien planet. Next, the gloves pulled over my thin bony hands. I walked reluctantly through the spray of mist that triggered when I opened the main door. It was hot, the air conditioning had been effective in the house because venturing outside was like walking into an oven.
The street was marked out with lines, evenly spaced distance markers as well as tall transparent shields next to every door. There was a wide gap in the row of adjacent houses with a small green in the middle and beyond that a gate in the hedge that led to the lane. I trudged off the pavement and no one was around. It was like a ghost town. It used to be eerie but now it felt normal, like being used to a painting on a wall – it eventually just fills a space, you stop looking hard at it.
I could sense them all, sitting in their little homes like small animals hiding in tree bark.
People were nestled in their walled suburban kingdoms, communicating through Devices and hologram tables, raging at politics and having stilted awkward exchanges of comments on social media platforms. I would often get drunk, post something and then delete it immediately. It didn’t feel like me saying it and my audience was too mixed up and judgmental, which didn’t help at all.
A fox ran by. I stopped. It was beautiful. Its red and white fur glistened in the sunshine and it sniffed the air for scent. It trotted by No 18, totally free and enjoying the lack of threats. It was seeing that fox that triggered a memory, a vision, a knowledge even, that hit me between the eyes.
Silvia Pearce. I used to smile and chat to Silvia once or twice a week a couple of years back. We had become friends of sorts, flirting, making jokes, spying on the neighbours and gossiping. She was so pure. I loved her classic looks, the way she was so true to herself, her cheekiness, her sense of timeless style and then of course, she used to be single. Before the pandemic I would see her return from the local pub with a different guy once in a while, a way to pull in comfort and stave off the loneliness of the night. I wasn’t prying, not being a creep, not really, but it was hard not to feel just a little jealous.
I made an impulsive decision. I knew it could easily go so wrong, but life was awful. There had to be risk, there had to be more. I walked to the door of No 18 and I pressed the buzzer. It was like I had shaken off a mind-numbing drug and I had just figured something out, something important.
A moment or two later, she appeared in the doorframe in her white silk PJs, cupping a gin and tonic in a wide curved glass.
“A bit early!” I smiled.
She looked happy to see me, perhaps to see anyone at all. I notice her eyes were puffy and red, she had been crying and recently.
“Hey, you, God… It’s been so long since I’ve talked to you. It’s so good to see you. What is it? Do you need something?”
I sighed. Looked at her, momentarily speechless. It was so hot on that doorstep. The sun was blazing and the transparent bubble over my head was focusing the heat. What was I thinking? What was I doing?
“Need something…. Yes, that’s just it. Can I come in?”
“But that’s against the rules?” she said rolling her eyes.
Her brow furrowed and then relaxed. She was working it out. She was feeling what I was trying to say, despite being completely lost for the words to express it. I was worried I was coming off wrong.
I almost waved and turned around toward the woods but then she said, “Come in, no one’s looking…”
I shifted on the step and stole a quick glance up and down the street. No twitching curtains, no people, no patrol cars. I darted in and she slammed the door shut, locking us in.
“It’s OK,” she said, “I feel… I feel the same.”
The air between us was suddenly sizzling with electricity. I unclipped the helmet, took off my gloves and let them all just fall to the floor.
“Wow!” she proclaimed.
“Yes, sorry. I look like shit today. Don’t worry, Device told me I just need air. But you know… I am finding this whole situation…. I don’t know. What’s the point?”
She looked relaxed now, empathetic – tipping her head to one side over a shoulder as if a gesture to indicate she was listening.
“It’s OK… I know… Just tell me, tell me please, exactly what you want and maybe… Maybe I can help.”
She put her gin and tonic down on the carpet near her leg, to abandon it.
I closed my eyes, willed my voice to say it.
“I want you. I need to feel your touch. I just need it. More than air.”
I realised Device had inspired me to do this, but without knowing anything about me at all. That was the difference between machine and human, a machine really is dead. It can’t possibly truly understand the living.
We were both breathing harder, excited, scared – did we dare? This was so spontaneous, so dangerous.
We didn’t even put on the more sensitive light-touch gloves or disinfect our exposed skin. She just reached up and put the palm of her soft hand flat against my cheek. It felt so good, a real person, a real moment.
I leant in and kissed her on the lips. They were so delicate and just a little moist. She was trembling slightly. I kissed her again, this time just a little firmer. She pulled away, and then she came back a third time, now with both hands on my face, exploring it in gentle sweeps of her thumbs and fingers.
Device began to send out an alarm. It had switched itself on to monitor me – a mistake on my part, I should have known.
Silvia looked panicked. She knocked the G and T over that she had placed carefully on the floor and she backed away into a side table in the hall. There were two cameras activated nearby with a clear line of sight to where we stood, one on a small TV visible through the kitchen doorway at the end of the hall and one on a phone Silvia had left propped on the hall table. They switched on and pieced together the scene. We had been caught and recorded.
My Device shouted at us both from my inside jacket pocket, “Stop now, step away from each other and refrain from touching. You have committed the crime of touch.”
“Device, you cleared me already!” I boomed. I was more angry than scared.
“The Disease Control Law of 2024 explicitly forbids all human contact without full quarantine and disinfection protocols. You have both broken this law and a policebot has been despatched from the closest station. Open the door, step back inside and remain where you are. You have each been fined two hundred pounds, which will be automatically deducted from your personal accounts. The policebot will further assess your position on arrival.”
“Assess my position,” I said sarcastically. I moved toward Silvia and clutched her hand and she held it tightly. Her perfect skin touched mine.
“I feel alive for the first time, in a long time,” I said.
She smiled, the alarm noises seeming less somehow.
“Let’s stay together,” She said. She shut the kitchen door and turned the phone over so its camera was blind to us.
“One more,” she said and I wrapped my arms around her, her warmth radiating into me, and I felt love.