The alarm on my watch jolts me awake. The window blinds are programmed to open to when alarm is set to go off, and as such, soft light fills the room. I get up with a groan and rub the sleep from my eyes. The infotainment screen descends from the ceiling. Lizzy’s easy voice provides the news.
“Good health and pleasant morning, Reginald. This morning’s report is brought to you by Samsung and Central Infection Control. The temperature outside is currently 17 degrees Celsius. The expected high will be 39 degrees Celsius at 2 pm. There is a 53% chance of thunder showers in the late evening.” I check my watch with a yawn and see a message from work.
Lizzy continues, “Air and water toxin levels are 8.2 or moderate poor to poor.” Best it’s been in a month. The screen displays a map showing the toxin levels over the region. The familiar orange circles overlay most of the cities in mining and manufacturing districts northwest coastal region. The rare mineral mines and factories have made this the most polluted place in the country. But we desperately need the mines and factories – we need them for our batteries, watches, screens – our precious stuff. The trade off for those things is high pollution in the industrial cities.
“Regional Infection activity is high. National infection activity is high but with a descending trend. Global infection activity is moderate to high.” The screen shows a map with viral illness levels in the region and an infection curve. Six months of this fucking global infection cycle. We used to call them pandemics when they were less common – but now they seem to happen every two or so years. The infection curve has been flat for three weeks, and appears to be starting to bend downward. Because of this, the Central Infection Control has allowed a relaxation of the quarantine. “Your temperature readings throughout the night and this morning suggest you are not infected, Reginald.”
“Fantastic news, Lizzy. But how could I get infected? I haven’t left the unit in months.”
“It’s important to isolate from infection sources in these times, Reginald.”
I shuffle to the bathroom, rub my eyes and flip the shower on. The mirror reveals a haggard looking face. When did my beard get so long?
A message from Maddie pings on my watch screen.
‘We still on??? So excited!!!’
I remember now! Yes, first day of the relaxation!
“Lizzy, text Maddie back with: ‘See you at Mac-Dinner on Silicon Way at 1:30: add exclamation point.’
“Yes, Reginald, message has been sent. If you plan on leaving the apartment, which is not advisable given local infection levels, you should employ protocol Q-19 and use a CAT Br-eeze level 8 or higher filter in your respirator.”
“Ok, Lizzy – and they are relaxing the quarantine rules, so just calm down, ok?”
“Of course, Reginald, I am only looking out for your well-being.”
I have a shower. It feels good to get cleaned up. It got to the point where I saw no need to even bother with grooming or proper hygiene – I’m just here alone anyway. I clip and then shave off my beard – my skin looks shockingly exposed, I’ve had the scruff for months now and have become used to it. But CIC enforcement has warned that facial hair in public could lead to detention and a trip to sanitation cells – I have no interest in that.
I smell coffee. Lizzy has activated the brewer. That smell, and the thought of going out – the thought of Maddie, is energizing. I walk to the kitchen and grab a fresh cup of coffee. A bowl of Kellog meal is waiting in the fridge. A call comes in from mom – I see only see an unflattering view of her chin and up her nose from her handheld screen’s low vantage point.
“Morning, Mom,” I mumble as I try to swallow a mouthful of Kellog meal, “Mom, I don’t know how many times I have to say this, hold it up to your face. I can’t see you!”
Oh! Right! Like this?” She pops into view, her whole face taking up the screen. Her eyes squint through the reading glasses teetering on the tip of her nose. “Better?”
“You don’t have to hold it two inches from your face, either.” I shake my head, “Just never mind – how are you, Mom?”
“Fine, fine, rattling around here. Reggie! You shaved! Who is this handsome man!
“I know, it’s been a while, huh? What are you up to this weekend?”
“You know, I’m not doing much. I signed up for some cribbage blitz with the ladies. Should be easier to play on this new handheld. Oh, and we are doing a VR walking tour of, I think of Bruges, Belgium, circa 2010. Or maybe it’s the Rio di Janeiro beach tours this weekend?” She pauses to think, “I can’t remember. “Anyway, so what’s with the face? I was getting used to talking to a grizzly bear.”
“Well they eased the restrictions, mom, so –”
“– No, no, no, Reggie, no! Don’t you even think about it!” Her face turns serious and the finger wagging begins, “It’s just not safe! You can’t just go and roam around out there – it takes nothing to catch it! Your father, you know –“
“– Mom! It’s for Maddie, ok. We said we would finally meet after the quarantine. So please don’t worry. We aren’t going to do anything crazy. Just a quick Mac-Dinner and home before curfew.”
She goes quiet. She loves Maddie and she loves to brag to her cribbage group about her son’s girlfriend.
But she’s always been nervous about the infection cycles. Dad was an EMT on the front line back in 2020. They just weren’t ready for something like that. He contracted the virus trying his best to help people. He saw so much death as the hospitals were completely overwhelmed – he said it was like a war zone. They just couldn’t get enough equipment to meet demand.
When he died we couldn’t even see his body – he lay, tagged and bagged in a fucking ice hockey rink for months. I was only ten when it happened and I have no clue how mom coped so well after he died, especially given chaos of the pandemic. She was working double shifts at CAT just days after he died. They needed all the production managers on board as they flipped operations from mining sensors to ventilators.
We learned so much about how to manage infections since the Trinity infections of the 20s. Real-time monitoring of infection rates through mandatory watches, strict quarantine protocols, standardized PPE, systemic disinfection, and centralized emergency infrastructure. It’s become a way of life guarding against these infections. Vaccine development is getting better. During the last cycle they had one ready and distributed in ten months. They figure we should get this one by month eight.
“Listen, it will be ok mom. But I got to go. I have a few things to do around here. I’ll call tonight.”
“Fine Reg. You just be careful – God I still can’t believe I brought a child into this kind of world!”
Her worried face disappears from the screen. I hate when she stresses about this stuff, but I have a life to live. I check my work message – Just a reminder about an audit report is due next week. It’s Just a matter of reviewing and commenting on the distributed ledger.
I try to keep busy before its time to leave, but my god, the wait is driving me crazy. I clean up around the unit and start to sort through my antique watch collection – my order of two watches from Vintage Vinnie’s Marketplace came in. One is a Casio Game-10 from 1980s, the other a Timex Indiglo Gold Tone, circa 1993. I give them a good inspection. I love these pre-internet watches, make me think of a simpler time. I also picked up an old paper anniversary card from Vinnie’s for Maddie. I scrawl a quick note in it for her.
There’s an I-Prix race on in the background. Pretty exciting, but honestly, I find sim racing is just not the same as old fashioned “legacy” racing. You know, real cars on a real track. I guess I’m just nostalgic sometimes. There is something about the danger of the real car to car action that gets me going. Don’t get me wrong, I respect the sim racers abilities, but the only risks they are taking are maybe a headache and some eye strain. Maddie will be watching the race too. She is a diehard fan of the I-Prix series – she even spent a small fortune on an impressive sim rig of her own. When I first met her at a production management conference, her sim set up stood out in the background of her office like a beacon of cool. I just had to DM her about it. Since then, we’ve been hanging out almost daily, well, hanging out digitally anyway.
I put on the news, but it’s depressing – pollution levels are so high in the region. We went electric and they said it would reduce pollution. But it hasn’t happened, not in the mining and manufacturing districts anyway. The mines are filthy and the battery and electronics factories produce some horrid waste. It’s just not as clean as everyone thinks. But most of the regions don’t see the toxic dumps in these districts. The corporations promised a better way to deal with the waste – but the sludge lakes and lagoons keep growing.
I get dressed into something presentable – that new blue t-shirt I ordered last week and my favorite black Jeans. I thought they might not fit given I’ve been sitting on my ass for half a year. Oh and better put on the classic chucks Maddie got me for my birthday.
I find my standard issue baby blue PPE suit and gloves. Check my dual chamber CAT respirator. The cylindrical filter cartridges are rated at Level 10 – Lizzy will be satisfied with that. It forms a perfect seal on my shaved face. The suit feels bulkier than I remember it being.
The elevator descends to the lobby. The elderly doorman, Bruce, is at his control desk in gear similar to mine – except his is royal blue with the property management logo displayed across his chest. I like him. He loves old hip hop music from the 90s. I bet he’s one of the only flesh and blood doorman left in the city. The company is probably waiting for him to retire before they find an electronic replacement – seems oddly compassionate for this day and age.
“Mr. Hesper,” his eyes squint, a clue he is smiling behind his respirator, “Gettin’ out for the relaxation.”
“You know it Bruce! And, you won’t believe it, but I’m heading off on a date!”
“My man! Well step on into my office and let’s get you on your way,” he nods to the Plexiglas chamber that separates the lobby and the door to the street. I stride in and the door shuts behind me. I give him the thumbs up and he flips a switch at his desk. The UV sensitization beam sweeps over me.
The exit door swings open. I hear Bruce’s voice, muffled through the intercom speaker, “Behave yourself, now! Oh and Reggie, I got one for yah! Naughty by Nature, Hip Hop Hooray, and turn it up loud!”
I give him a two finger wave and step out to the street. It’s hotter than I expected – stifling in my PPE. But it’s no matter – it feels pretty great to get out of the unit. Mac-Dinner is only a few blocks away so I can handle the walk. I turn up my head phones and bounce to Bruce’s song suggestion.
Over the past six months, few people were allowed out on the streets, and only with a special permission pass. But today, with the relaxation, there is some human activity, though less than I expected. I’m not sure if people are scared to go out, or have become so used to being in their units that they don’t want the hassle of sweating to death in uncomfortable PPE.
Quarantine or not, the streets are always bustling with carriage vans, Servi-Carts and delivery drones, all busy fulfilling online orders for the city folk. Perhaps people are so used to things coming to them that they see no need to go out?
Electric engines whir and hum as the delivery vehicles accelerate by. But the annoying street sounds are deadened by my music. I stop and look up at the drone traffic above the street level – it’s a dizzying, never ending stream of them. An angry horn blast shakes me to attention – I’m blocking the path of a small Servi-Cart that is delivering packages to a nearby high-rise. I step aside and pop out my ear buds. I think I need all my faculties to safely navigate. The Servi-cart tells me off with another angry honk and whirs away. People laughed at Mr. Musk when he said he’d make electric and autonomous mainstream. And now here we have it: all electric and unmanned. It seems now Servi-Carts rule the sidewalks over the humans, and the damn machines are pretty rude about it too!
A CIC enforcement drone shoots past with blue flashing lights and a screaming siren. It whips hard around a corner and into the alley ahead of me. I approach the alley entrance and I see an old leathery looking woman yelling obscenities at the drone. She has no PPE, no respirator, dirty clothes and a dry hacking cough.
A monotone voice comes from the drone’s loudspeaker, “CIC enforcement. Present your watch for scan, please.”
“Fuck off!” She barks, while hurling a brick from a pile of construction detritus. It misses the drone, but hits a passing Servi-Cart with a heavy thud. I notice she isn’t wearing a watch, instead, her wrist is covered by a heart tattoo with a black X through it. That tattoo is relic symbol of the unrest of the 20s. During the Trinity infections many jobs were lost. The corporations that survived the Trinity mechanized and automated their work forces to reduce overhead. This resulted in huge worker demonstrations. The protesters brandished the heart with an X as their logo – placed it on posters, stickers, their websites and communications. Ultimately the demonstrations became very violent and essentially, the workers devolved into a terrorist group– bombing, looting and causing all kinds of destruction. Now, I’ve heard some say that the corporations just labeled the workers as “rebels” and “terrorists” through their media subsidiaries. An excuse for the corporations to justify sweeping in and crushing the demonstrators with their private armies. It’s also been said that the CIC took kickbacks and secretly allied with the corporation. And I kind of understand why people think that. Hundreds of thousands of protesters died of disease. The CIC officials said the protesters were exposed to the infection because they didn’t following prescribed PPE and infection prevention protocols. But some say the corporations and CIC actually infected them with bio weapons at the protests and barred them from using any CIC medical facilities for treatment. I don’t know what to believe – I was just a kid playing video games at home, riding out the pandemic. But every now and then you see one of these “rebels” surface and get detained by CIC, and it makes you wonder about things.
“Where is your watch, ma’am? Please produce it now!” She tosses another brick and it nearly hits me. No watch is a serious offense as CIC cannot track your location and vitals.
A white van with its siren blaring speeds down the street and screeches to a stop at the alleyway. Four officers (human, not robot!) in official CIC PPE, jump out of the van. A third brick is tossed and hits the vehicle, leaving a mark on the CIC logo. The lady is promptly tasered by one of the officers and her limp body is whisked away into the van.
I carry on to Mac-Dinner. A steady flow of drone and Servi-Cart traffic comes and goes from the building’s delivery docks. Mac-Dinner was the first restaurant to adopt drone and Servi-Cart delivery. This allowed it to be “quarantine proof” and one of the only restaurants to withstand the economic shock of the Trinity. It was only the big corporations could adapt fast enough, and had the bankroll, to absorb the turmoil we faced in the 20s. So the big companies like CAT, Hondco, Samsung, Mac-Dinner, are all we have now: ‘No more mom and pop shops anymore’ as my mom says.
I enter the Mac-Dinner and step into one of the sanitation stations for a beam sweep. Once sanitized, I place my PPE in a locker. I can smell meat meal cooking. There are maybe about ten or so customers in the dining area. Again, I thought more people would be out. I walk toward the seating area and spot her, Maddie! Sitting at a corner table, hennaed hair (the color changes weekly), blue jeans, VR rock concert t -shirt and fashionable contemporary gold flats. She is playing on her watch screen while sipping a Blendee. She sees me and smiles.
“Right! Well you look good,” she smirks while sipping her drink, “even with the baby face.”
I roll my eyes at her. She is gorgeous, and so cool. She stands up and we exchange awkward bows as hugging is prohibited during a cycle. She is shorter in real life than I what I expected. And she smells amazing. These are things you don’t catch through the screen. Exhilarating yet strange, this, finally meeting in person.
“So this is kind of awkward – like, I really know you, but I kind of don’t,” I say, sheepishly.
She looks around and brushes my smooth face (physical contact is a no no). “Its fine, Reggie, I know you.” She looks down and then back up. “Nice shoes, by the way!”
That reminds me of the card I got for her. I slip it out of my back pocket and hand it to her with a bit of a smile.
“Oh yeah. Hey, happy three month anniversary”
She grabs the card, “Oh my God, Reggie! I haven’t seen a paper card since I was like seven!” She looks the card over. It has a picture of two tortilla chips holding hands by a bowl of dip. She reads it aloud, “We’re nacho ordinary couple, Happy Anniversary!” and lets out a loud hysterical laugh.
I chuckle watching her, “You like it?”
She wipes a tear away while catching her breath, “It’s perfect! Let me guess, Vintage Vinnie’s?”
I shrug. She knows I spend most of my spare money on trinkets from online antique markets, Vinnie’s being my favorite.
We make our food order on our watches – a couple of meal loafs. The order is quickly delivered by a Servi-Cart.
“Living dangerously, Maddie,” I point to the middle of the table. It’s the only one without a Plexiglas partition between us.
She laughs, “And on the first real life date no less!”
We dig into our meals. It’s nice to eat with someone in person. Though I feel I need to remember my manners. I haven’t eaten in front of a living and breathing person in a long time, well at least not one who wasn’t on a screen. I tell her about how good it feels to get outside in the real world. She was amazed to hear about the lady in the alley.
“No respirator even? That’s crazy Reg. I didn’t even know people like that existed anymore.”
And of course we talk about music.
“I just can’t enjoy it, Maddie.”
“Why, not? It has such a similar sound to The Casablancas, and you love those guys.”
“But The Casablancas are blood and flesh musicians – real artists. The A.I. stuff just seems, deficient, you know?”
She shakes her head, “Reg, you are the only person I know who hates that song.”
“It has no soul! Seriously, that’s the difference. A song should have soul, or at least be made by someone that has one. I can’t explain it, but I just can’t get into the A.I. shit.”
The split between A.I. and human made music is now about 50/50 on the charts. I struggle with it – but Maddie embraces it, she sees the good in it. She feels A.I. augments the state of music. It doesn’t displace traditional artists, it compliments them. But I struggle with it. Sort of like I-Prix racing. It’s fake. And I can’t get past that.
She laughs, “Well, old man. Are you going to go home and yell at the robots to get off your lawn after this?”
“If I had a lawn, yes!”
The comfort of chatting through our screens is gone and I feel vulnerable. Yet it’s exciting. Can she sense my unease? She seems so natural and relaxed. She can so easily traverse the virtual world and the real. I wish I could.
She tells me about her work week – she’s a production manager at Hondco Servi-Carts.
“I was nearly run over by one of your daemon machines on my way here!”
“Ah relax,” she smiles, “its algorithm would stop it from running you over.” She pauses to think, “Well, unless it had to choose between you and a baby, or Hondco exec – you’re written in as a lower priority to them!”
I shake my head as she chuckles and sips the last of her Blendee.
We finish our food and we decide to take a walk to the Samsung Park wharf. We get into our baby blue PPE. Maddie has a very cool electric pink CAT respirator – a custom made unit that suits her perfectly.
We get to the wharf and look out upon the bay. With the relaxation announced I thought the park would be busy, but there are only a handful of people around, mostly couples, wearing the same baby blue PPE as us. Have we become too anxious to go out? I saw on the news that more people have been turning to VR gatherings. You can go anywhere you want with VR. Hang out on the beach along a pristine blue ocean, ski perfect powder on snowcapped mountains, go clubbing in New York, all without leaving the comfort of your home. Maddie and I went on a few VR dates. A Broadway musical in New York City, a drive in movie in a 1950s era Cadillac, a Casablancas concert in Dubai. Maddie loves VR dates, but they make me nauseous and give me a headache. I’ll admit there, is something being able to just plug in and get away to a perfect version of reality. I don’t know. Maybe people have given up on the real world? I’d be easy to.
We lean on the wharf railing and watch water taxis shuttle to and from the huge CIC floating containment hospital that sits in the harbor. “I bet that screaming lady was put in there.”
Maddie nods, her arms crossed on the railing, “yeah, probably. They’ll get her sorted out.”
The water is a bit green and algal. There are a few oozy fish swimming below the wharf. A greasy gull dives at the fish. It’s no VR tour of the San Diego Zoo, but as depressing as the state of nature may be, it’s still nice to see some live animals.
I feel more relaxed and the conversation is becoming easier. More like when we chat on our screens. Thank God for that. I was worried the only way it would feel normal between us would be digitally. Maddie knows how to not make it awkward. She has this ease about her, matched with a positive energy. She puts up with, and counters my dark view of things. My sadness with the state of the real world, with its constant lock downs, decaying environment, the PPE. She also has helped me with my difficulty accepting the virtual world. Yes it has been built to accommodate and, in my view, probably replace, the real world I so pine for. But without this virtual world, I would not have met, and got to know, Maddie and all the enrichment she brings to me. That gives me hope – hope that maybe the state of the world, both the real and the virtual, or dare I say, augmented world, isn’t so bad. There is a bright side to things and I just need Maddie to show them to me.
My watch buzzes and I look at it. “It’s getting late, Maddie. 30 minutes to curfew.”
She looks out at the bay, and back at me. “We better head home before CIC starts buzzing drones as us.”
She pushes the call button for her Model Y. It’s parked a few blocks away in an underground. I hold her hand and look into her hazel eyes. They narrow – a hint of the smile behind the respirator. I’m trying to think of something perfect to say, but I have nothing. So we stand in awkward silence. I hear myself say something about cooler weather tomorrow, to fill conversation. She laughs at my effort.
“Well,” she says as the white Model Y pulls up, “This is me.”
She wraps her arms around me. Our PPE crinkles in a sort of sterile and plastic way. But, I feel it. I feel her warmth, something real despite the barriers between us. She is here, in my arms, in this diseased and dilapidated world. And no PPE, no stay at home order, and no shitty internet connection can stop me from feeling it.
I hear a loud engine revving down the street. Not an electric, that’s for sure. Maddie and I look up and see an old petrol(!) powered truck, scream by us with two police drones and a CIC van, with a huge dent in its side, in pursuit. A large heart with a black x is painted on the side of the truck and it streams a trail of exhaust blue exhaust behind it. There is a group of maybe five people riding in the truck box. A woman, with no respirator, tosses what appears to be a Molotov cocktail at the CIC van. Jesus! She looks just like the lady from the Alley! The flaming bottle misses the van and lands on the street in a ball of fire. The vehicles speed off down the street and out of view.
I look over at Maddie and she has a dumbfounded expression. What the fuck has happened to the city while we were locked up?
We take a moment to collect ourselves. Maddie gets into her car and it drives away. I start to walk toward home. None of those crazy rebels were wearing respirators, they’ll be dead in a week! Still, I feel happy and energized knowing the real world, warts and all, can still surprise me.
Sonny Creek is from Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. “The Relaxation” is one of their first works to come during their free time.