by Karen Holt
photo by CrazyFreeSpirit
Cerys stands on the glass-like surface of the polished sidewalk and looks skyward. The sprinkling of stars in the daylit sky mean it is a warm sunny day outside the protection of the dome. The suspension of moisture in the higher atmosphere refracts the light which penetrates the gel-formed shell covering the city of London.
Another hour and the light levels would drop, causing those same droplets to resemble grains of coal which, ironically, would obscure all but the brightest of heavenly stars. But for now, it was a light display worthy of God’s finest efforts.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, God abandoned us. On that thought, Cerys takes a deep sigh and runs up the steps to the glass doors of her building. She punches in her eight digit code and smothers the usual gasp as she rests her chin into a cold metal bracket. Centering her cobalt blue eye over the opaque white light, the sweep of the beam over her retina paints a rainbow inside her head, the effect of which quickly fades.
“Good evening, Cerys.” A voice erupts from somehere above the doorway and the heavy glass door opens as though pushed by an invible hand.
Without responding, Cerys crosses the polished marble floor, runs quickly up four flights of steel stairs and arrives at the door to her apartment. The keypad beeps as she punches in her second-level code and submits to another retinal scan.
The steel bolts disengage, and as the door opens the same automated female voice heard at the main doors says, “Welcome home, Cerys.”
Cerys clamps her lips shut, holding back the human response which always makes her feel foolish. It’s not like she’s real, right? Stepping over the threshold, she waits the second it takes for the door to close again, pausing barely long enough to empty her pockets and lower her work-case into a steel crate. She watches it disappear into a hatchway. In ten seconds, it would be ejected inside her apartment, having undergone the sanitizing process.
Stripping off her clothes in the airlock chamber, Cerys drops them into a steel chute, almost catching a finger as the metal lid snaps shut. With a graceful efficient stride, she enters an ice-white polished cubicle and climbs into her bio-pod. Lying back naked on a steel mesh covered mattress, her body sinks into the chainmail-like fabric as it molds to her shape.
Cerys closes her eyes as the bio-pod lid sighs shut, and she surrenders to the eddying currents of air which cover her in goose bumps. The scampering touch of the bio-engineered parasites as they pour from the mesh-lined padding and sweep up over her skin makes her grit her teeth.
Like the ‘dust mites’ she knew had lurked in her bed as a child come to life, the ‘scuttle-bugs’ devour the microscopic layer of sloughed skin and their biochemically modified digestive enzymes neutralize the bacteria she has brought in from the outside world. The process takes seconds, and as the sensation of her flesh crawling subsides, she breathes a sigh of relief.
Sitting up and swinging her legs over the side of the pod, Cerys runs her hands up over the satin smooth texture of her small ribcage and breasts, easing the remnants of the prickling feeling. She smiles as her skin tightens with a different sensation. Daniel would be waiting for her.
She had eaten a light lunch when at the bio-lab where she screens blood samples for the council, but her appetite for Daniel never faded. The hunger inside her blossoms at just the thought of his face. She stays with his face. Allowing her attention to wander down over his body would probably send the ‘scuttle bugs’ out again. Damp skin registers as contamination, and this category of dampness needs his touch, no one else’s.
A whirring sound announces the arrival of her fresh clothes, and interrupts her moment of anticipation. Getting to her feet, Cerys collects the neatly folded parcel from the locker in the wall. Intent on hurrying now, she barely hears the hatch door whoosh closed again as she turns away. Pulling on low slung sweatpants and a T-shirt, she shuns wearing the bra. Underwire marks frame the swell of her breasts and she figures a little respite in the privacy of her bio-habitat is not a lot to ask for.
The bonus of the daily attentions of the ‘scuttle-bugs’ is clean sleek hair, so it takes seconds for Cerys to run the comb lying in the bottom of the paper parcel through the blond strands which reach to her shoulder-blades. Folding the comb inside the torn garment packaging along with the bra, she tosses the bundle into the bio-chute. She indulges in an attack of vanity to check out her reflection in the single polished steel panel in the wall of white which serves as a mirror, before turning to face the inner doorway.
“Mother, scan now.” Cerys feels the blade of light sweep across her closed eyelids as the bio chamber detectors take a reading of contamination levels before the door into her apartment swishes open and, leaving the clinical space of the decontamination unit, she enters the sparsely furnished area she calls home.
The luster of the couch leather glows in the dim lighting as Cerys walks past, her bare feet making hardly a sound as she crosses the polished wood floor. She taps on the cochlea bone behind her left ear, and heads towards the kitchen. Even though she is expecting him, her breathing falters as, there he is, her Daniel.
For a few seconds, she leans against the wall in the doorway, watching the muscles in his back flexing beneath his shirt in a delightful display of masculinity. He’s making dinner. His dark gray slacks settle disappointment like a stone in her belly. He’s working tonight then. Usually his feet are bare and he favors cargo shorts. Even after two years, I still feel impossibly happy when I see him.
She walks into the dining area of the kitchen and drops down onto the hard seat of a plastic molded chair. Hitching her knee, she rests her foot up on the seat. The toes of her swinging leg stroke over the sealed hardwood floor.
“Hey honey, I’m home,” she whispers.
As Daniel turns, a smile lights up his face. Wiping his hands on a towel, his eyes travel down over her casually folded posture, returning to her face. “Tough day, hmm?”
Cerys frowns. “We found three contaminated specimens from bio-habitats in the Lambeth area today.” Her gaze swept the apartment as though looking for movement. “The bacteria are mutating again. The bio-sweep units in the habitats will need another modification upgrade.”
Hitching his backside back against the kitchen counter, Daniel says, “We knew it would be an ongoing battle… no, hell, a war. Things my end are the same, the lab technicians are playing catch-up.”
Cerys sighed. “Will we ever have families again, do you think?”
The shimmering particles of the bio-curtain refracting rays of light between where Cerys sits and the kitchen area in which Daniel stands, cannot hide the doubt in his eyes. “Oh I’m sure we will. It’s only been ten years since the wipe-out. Mankind won’t go down without a fight. Let’s forget it for tonight, okay?”
“Good girl,” Daniel mutters, turning away to attend to ladling food onto his plate.
Suddenly hungry, Cerys gets up, crosses the kitchen and opens the door on the food scanner. Taking out her own plate, she inhales in appreciation and wanders back to fold back down and perch on the chair.
Glancing at where Daniel is once again leaning back on the counter, balancing his plate on one hand and eating with a fork in the other, a teasing glint lit Cerys’ blue eyes, “So… are you staying the night?”
“I’ve got to get back in an hour or so.” He smiles. “But they’ve announced a bio-quarantine curfew two days from now. They are sanitizing the public buildings and we get to spend the whole day together. Stuck indoors, with nothing to do…” His suggestive eyebrow wriggle made Cerys laugh.
“Such a gentleman.” Cerys smiles, a flush of anticipation dusting her skin in perspiration. “I’ll hold you to that Mister. I’m feeling very neglected, I demand a bit of romance.”
“Oh you’ll have more than that mi’lady… but tonight, it’s work.”
Daniel continues enjoying his meal as Cerys sits at the table dipping crudités of sliced pepper, carrots and cucumber into sour cream. His dark eyes meet hers every few seconds, offering the promise that waiting offers. He always displays effortless control in fending off her attempts to distract him when work claims his time. His single-minded determination is one of the things she admires about him because, when his attention turn to her, he delivers every pleasure she dreams of.
Their conversation falters under the pressing cloud of time sifting through the hour glass, until finally, after placing the dishes in the basin, Daniel turns back to face her, regret lacing his voice. “I have to go. It’s only five pm here.” Automatically, he glances at his watch and frowns. “Shit, it’s nearly eleven p.m. there for you. Get to bed and get some sleep, okay?”
“I guess.” Standing up, she walks over to him, closes her eyes and feels his arms close around her. Running her hands into his hair, she kisses him.Holding onto his hand a moment longer, Cerys finally releases him and feels him ease away.
On a deep sigh, opening her eyes to capture the last moments of seeing his face, Cerys taps on her cochlea implant, severs the connection and Daniel’s image disappears.
The loneliness is instant but that’s the hell of the six hour time difference between the East Coast of the US and London.
It was one answer to the mental stress of loneliness. Pets were outlawed. The sanitizing scan of the apartment which ran while Cerys was out at work would kill them anyway. All organic and bacterial matter was targeted by the lazar sweep. Human health is no joking matter.
Having a virtual mate was the placebo saving her sanity. Daniel existed, of course, just not on her continent, but that mattered little when they would never be allowed to touch each other in any case.
The cochlea implant provides a cerebral connection which projects his image into her brain, and the same for him. The network of lazer projected ‘curtains’ enable his 3D image to occupy ‘real space’, or so her brain tells her.
Crossing the kitchen, Cerys looks into the empty basin where her mind tells her Daniel’s dishes should be sitting, and she shakes her head in bemusement.
Even an understanding of the technology did not prevent Cerys’ ‘feeling’ Daniel’s companionship as a tangible thing. It’s incredible how stimuli to the cerebral cortex, with a feed into the temporal lobe, can mimic physical sensation.
Like a paraplegic who still ‘feels’ the presence of an amputated limb, or the salivation of Pavlov’s dog at the ringing of a bell, Daniel’s presence is as real to Cerys as though her hands can really feel his skin.
They can never meet because intimate physical contact between humans is considered too dangerous now. With bacteria being impervious to antibiotics thanks to their overuse during the 20th century, sanitization and isolation are the mainstay of maintaining human health. Since the world’s population diminished to only the most robust specimens, Cerys’ life expectancy is managed by constant monitoring of her bio-support.
She chose Daniel, or rather, they chose each other in a melting-pot mind meld. The temporal lobe feeds transmitted a simultaneous signal and, like a virtual cocktail party, the essence, minds, and emotional responses of every inhabitant occupied the same space.
Like magnetic charges, she and Daniel were drawn together. It was how she thought of it, in any case… no doubt the bio-med unit would have a million and one physiological, and more importantly, biochemical names for it, but essentially, the moment they connected, Cerys felt whole.
“We aren’t meant to be alone.” Cerys regrets muttering the words aloud as the last tendrils of her memories of Daniel are snatched from her by a tinny declaration.
“Please repeat instruction.”
The harsh explosion of sound startles Cery. “Shit, shit, shit,” she mutters as the plate in her hand shatters in the basin. Human instinct is a bitch. She grabs for it, knowing she shouldn’t, and the ceramic shards graze across her hand.
“Cerys, you have a BP spike. Please confirm.”
Ignoring ‘mother’, Cerys inspects the beads of blood glistening like a string of rubies in the dim light. “Just scared myself mother.” Sucking the flesh reduces the oozing blood to a barely visible broken line of dots. Just a scratch. Just a scratch. It’s fine.
“Cerys, explain elevated heart rate.”
“Oh piss-off, mother.”
“Please repeat instruction.”
Winding in the irritation cramping her shoulders, Cerys reverts to official commands. “Mother, shut down habitat.” Naming an Operating System ‘mother’ is an irony. The synthesized voice could not sound colder if it tried.
As she enters her bed chamber, a blue glow swells to fill the room behind her as the motion sweep scans the space.
The sliding panel closes silently. As Cerys crosses the bare polished floor, another panel opens. Inside, another sealed package awaits. Larger than the one which contained her clothes in the entrance decontamination chamber.
Cery’s turns back into the room as the bare sleeping platform slides out from the wall and the smooth, glassy white surface transforms as gel oozes in between two flexible layers, lifting and rounding to replicate an illusion of a padded mattress.
Cerys opens the package containing a pillow and a thin sheet of thermal fabric which will regulate her body temperature during sleep, and makes up the bed.
“Garments please, Cerys.”
“Yeah yeah.” Standing, Cerys shucks out of the sweatpants and T-shirt and reluctantly pulls the thin sleeping shift over her head.
She wears bio-lab issued clothing outside the apartment, however, individuals are allowed to keep a small number of personal items provided they withstand the sanitization procedure. As required, she folds the sweatpants and shirt, placing them inside the open panel where they would be scanned and decontaminated by scuttle bugs and be added back into her meager wardrobe selection.
Cerys grins. Her stubbornness is deeply ingrained, and the supervisor at work never tires of hounding her to put in a requisition for regulation bio-degradable garments from the warehouse, but she clings onto the human choice of risking infection and wearing real fabrics. As long as her scanner programming allows for it, she will not relinquish the remnant of feeling which makes her an individual.
Finally climbing into bed, Cerys mutters the shutdown command which always sticks in her throat. Some bozo in programming has a real sense of humor which I’ll beat out of him, if I ever get the chance.
“Goodnight mother, sleep tight.”
“Goodnight Cerys. Shutdown commencing.”
The light levels in the clinical space decayed away slowly to pitch black.
Alone in the darkness, Cerys taps on her cochlea implant. Like the sound of a distant ocean whooshing in a seashell held to an ear, a whisper of Daniel’s presence strokes through the neurotransmitters in her brain. The connection is akin to a single thread of the virtual fabric where thousands are needed to actually project his image, but it is a connection, nonetheless.
Drifting off to sleep, Cerys hangs onto the virtual stimuli which fools her senses into believing Daniel had really been there, in her apartment, around 3,000 miles away from where he really exists. Running her fingernails down the inside of her wrist releases a measured dose of his masculine pheromones in a blossoming cloud, and she inhales him deeply. His scent on her skin is real. When two ‘virtual partners’ remain exclusive for more than a year, like a vow of commitment, they are offered a subcutaneous implant allowing for the extra sense of pheromone enhancement.
Spending the day with Daniel is the upside to the curfew demanding confinement to her habitat during public building sanitization. Two days. Cerys smiles. Shifting on the mattress to get comfortable, she clenches her fist and the scratch on her hand stings. It’s fine. A crawling feeling beneath her skin argued with the notion.
Karen is an aspiring author and compulsive writer. She lives in England with her family, and when she’s not at work, she can usually be found under her laptop. Karen writes novels, and is hard at work on her ‘Fire and Ice’ series of five post-apocalyptic vampire novels in the horror/dark fantasy genre.