This story appears in Division: A Collection of Science Fiction Fairytales.
RICHARD SITS ON a couch that’s too soft, waiting. He’s given up trying to get comfortable. Even shifting only reminds him of the cold sweat misting his skin and the empty space in front of him where his eyepiece should be projecting. He’s overhyped, a raw nerve. Maybe he shouldn’t have spent the last hour after work locked in a VIRTUOS, desperately trying to forget the upcoming ordeal. Or maybe it’s the drugs they gave him when he arrived, the ones that tasted like ash. To disable his internal electronics. To calm him. To make him receptive.
The last two aren’t working.
For the seventh time, he tries to distract himself by looking around the room. It’s minimalistic, painted with a palette of pale blue that’s presumably meant to be comforting. The carpet is blue as well, the couch white. Another couch sits opposite his, empty. Soft music plays from hidden speakers. He can’t shake the feeling that the room is trying to lull him into a quiescent state before it pounces. He isn’t fooled. His gaze moves to the only other feature of the room, the grey sliding doors, and keeps waiting.
His sense of time is shot without his connections, so he doesn’t know exactly when the screen on the door blinks. But the effect is immediate. His breathing slows, his palms sweat and fist in his pants. And he sits up straight like a soldier, praying for the end, as the doors slide open and a woman walks in.
She looks different from the pictures he was given in the file, ones that he now suspects were heavily modified. There’s no sleepy, sultry supermodel here, just a mousy-haired woman with a surprisingly sweet smile. He wonders suddenly if they’d changed his own photos to make him look like a stud and is inordinately chuffed at the thought. Then he blinks. What an odd thought. Perhaps the drugs are working.
Not enough, however, to make him forget the fact that they’ve now been staring at each other in silence for what feels like a minute. Blushing, he blinks automatically to bring up a chat window. Nothing happens. “Shit,” he says.
The woman grins. “Takes some getting used to, doesn’t it?” she asks. She walks over and falls on the couch with a sigh. “Hi,” she says. Her voice is warm, rich, easy. “I’m Susan. It’s nice to meet you.”
Richard coughs. His throat feels lined with cobwebs, his face hot. And then he speaks the first words he’s spoken directly to another human being for the first time in eight years. “Uh, hi,” he says lamely. He feels every scratch, every tremor in his voice. “I’m Richard.”
Idiot, he thinks immediately. She knows his name just like he knows hers, it came to them with their job files. Just like their instructions:
FOR THE FIRST MEETING, EASE IN SLOWLY. GET TO KNOW EACH OTHER. GET EXCITED. HALF THE FUN IS IN THE ANTICIPATION.
Right now, the only anticipation he’s feeling is the urge to run to a sanitary unit. Thankfully she’s too polite to point out his greenish face. Instead, she focuses on a spot just above his eyebrow and picks at a loose thread on her tunic sleeve. “So,” she says. “How was your day?”
Richard tries to think. He doesn’t remember much, possibly because he spent most of it in a fog of dread about this scheduled connection. “It was good,” he lies hesitantly. “How was yours?”
Her turn to pause. Her eyes shift to the left, behind his head. Richard waits patiently, wrestling down the inner voice that’s meanly satisfied with the fact that he’s obviously not the only one uncomfortable with this whole unnatural situation. It distracts him enough that he’s able to quash the urge to bring up Sweet Hammer or Cat Trap in his lens and let the bright colors and familiar puzzles distract him while the aching seconds pass. Well, at least it distracts him long enough for him to remember that even if he wanted to, he couldn’t.
“Awful,” she suddenly says. Richard almost jumps off the couch, startled. He’s forgotten what they were talking about, so he finds himself nodding along automatically, praying she doesn’t notice. She’s focusing on the blank wall behind his shoulder now. He lives in hope. She continues: “Well, not really awful. I was just nervous. Silly, right?”
Richard thinks of the data packet he screwed up that morning, the first mistake he’d made in a good five months. Something eases in his chest. It’s probably because of the drugs. “No,” he says, smiling for no apparent reason. “Uh, no. I mean, not at all. I was… I was nervous too.”
Susan laughs. Richard suddenly finds himself laughing too, painfully, consciously. Still, perhaps this speaking-in-person thing is doable. Maybe he can just pretend she’s a holding machine in the flesh. Whatever will help him survive this next month.
“Oh wow,” she says, covering her mouth with her hand. “I’m so glad I’m not the only one.”
“No,” he says, nodding along still. His head feels like a puppet, up down, up down. He stops. “You’re not the only one.”
They pause together nervously. After the laughter, silence floods back into the room with a vengeance. Richard opens his mouth and tries to think of what to say next. This is so much harder than the AI they had him practice with. She saves the day again, and he’s both annoyed and grateful.
“So what do you do during the day?” she asks brightly. The smile is beginning to look a little fixed, but perhaps that’s his imagination. “I mean, aside from work? Not that I’m not interested in what you do for work, because I am.”
Richard’s brain works before he does. “I’m a data analyst at Geiger,” he says out loud, before remembering again that she already knows this because it was in their files. Shit. “Shit, sorry.” Shit. He tries to save himself. “I forgot, you must know that already.”
“It’s all right,” she says gently. “I’m a software coder at Isla. I know you know that too, but did you know that we still have to go into an office? The owner’s hanging on, well over a hundred and thirty, and she insists this ‘workplace culture’ thing is important to work, somehow.”
Richard is so surprised he forgets to be awkward. “I didn’t know that,” he says, struck. He can’t imagine having to leave his room every morning, let alone sitting down with other people and working together. That must be why she’s so good at talking. He feels a surge of relief that he’s not just incompetent: in a way, she’s cheated. Then he thinks about how she cheated, and the words come out before he can stop them. “What a waste of time.”
To his surprise, Susan comes alive. She leans forward onto her knees, and suddenly they are much closer than he’s comfortable with. “I know, right?” she speaks animatedly, gesturing with her hands. “It takes me half an hour to get there in the morning. Half an hour. Nobody else is on the train.” She pauses. “Well, there’s the man looking after the supply boxes in another carriage, but that doesn’t count.”
Richard swallows. For a moment, he tries to imagine facing that empty time and space and isolation everyday, and then his mind screams with horror and shuts it down. “How do you stand it?” he asks, genuinely wanting to know.
She shrugs. “You get used to it.” She smiles. “And you get very, very good at playing Sweet Hammer.”
Richard’s jaw drops. “What level are you?” he blurts out before he can stop himself.
Her smile broadens. “BB234. You?”
He’s awed. “I’m still stuck on AZ11,” he says. “How’d you get past that?”
She opens her mouth to respond and suddenly the soft music playing in the room stops. A new sound hits them both: a gentle chime, almost like a school bell. Time’s up. 5 minutes. It felt like an hour. He doesn’t know how he did it. “Well, thanks,” she says, standing up from the couch and stretching. She’s still smiling so he takes that as a good sign. “How about I tell you next time?”
Richard stands up too, awkwardly. “That sounds good,” he says. They each take a step, realize they’re far too close to each other for comfort, and pause. His brain, able to keep up with three data streams, stutters for a moment before he clumsily moves behind her.
“Thanks,” she says. She hesitates, walks forward quickly, and then connects. The door whispers open.
“Goodnight,” she says.
“Goodnight,” he echoes.
He lets the door close behind her. He stares at himself in the muted grey surface. He looks like he’s been spiked by a virus, eyes wide and sweating. He stares at himself until the drugs wear off and he feels the hum of electricity in his brain again, and then he throws himself into Sweet Hammer with a vengeance while he waits for the government car to take him home.
Three days after the first meeting, he opens the VIRTUOS that the government sent him like a good, loyal, assignment-abiding citizen. As the file unfolds around him in 3D, complete with sound, smell and color, he mentally revises his opinion on the merits of the forced conversation. At least it’s not like this: excruciating and boring in equal measure. After all, he knows how babies used to be made. He knows more of how they are made now: cleanly, simply, safely. It makes him think that if he were in charge, he would never have reallocated the funding. The idea of the ocean rising to swallow them sounds less frightening than the VIRTUOS, which alternate between blisteringly clinical and downright horrifying. He doesn’t really know what the ocean is. But he gets chills when he sees their faces, the expressions and noises of what can only be pain, the horrifying animality of skin on skin and the sound of wet slaps. His member stays quiescent even though the instructions encourage him to participate and practice. The assignment is only weeks away, after all, and Richard is a careful man who believes in preparation.
He can’t do it. He watches and feels nothing but a curious wonder that this is how the human race propagated itself for so many thousands of years.
No wonder they almost all died out.
“It’s all in the timing,” she says.
The schedules say that the first conversation was for introductions. The next one is meant to launch them immediately into preparation for the assignment. They’re meant to talk about what they’re looking forward to and what they want. Flirting, the audiobook told him in its reassuring voice, is a completely natural adult pastime that humans used to copiously engage in.
They talk about Sweet Hammer and riding the train.
“I know that,” he says insistently. “But it’s getting too fast, I can’t concentrate on both puzzles at the same time.”
She nods gravely. It’s a serious matter, after all. “Try relaxing a little. I know I used to get really tense when I was playing. But it’s ok to fail the first few times you try something different.”
Richard’s face must look like he just ate his dinner paste cold, because Susan laughs. “Really,” she says. “It’s ok.”
He changes the topic. “So. You play mainly on the train. What’s it like?”
She tries to tell him. Richard, who can count on one hand (with fingers to spare) the times he has left his apartment since the corporation bought it for him, is both fascinated and repelled by the concept. A private, branded car came to pick him up when he left his mother’s apartment all those years ago. And a government car ferries him to and from each of these forced, stilted conversations. There’s no other reason to go outside.
“So it’s really just an empty box with all these seats?” he asks aloud, trying to figure it out.
Susan laughs. She looks different, he notices that much. Her hair is tied up behind her head and he finds himself disoriented at the lack of movement when she nods. “I guess you could call it that,” she says.
Richard scrunches up his nose and leans forward, hands unconsciously moving through the air in the age-old dance of physical communication. “And then behind you, there’s another box? Only this one’s filled with… other boxes?”
Susan looks thoughtful. “I think it’s food and things. They must make the big deliveries on the train.”
Richard can’t shake his analyst’s mind. “But where does it all come from?”
“I… don’t know, actually.” She looks perplexed, almost annoyed. He is grateful that she puts up with his questions; it’s easier to think them up than it is to talk about anything else with her. Besides, he wants to know the answers. And he wants to know how she’s never thought about these things before. Unless she really has gotten used to it, but Richard can’t imagine how you could get used to something so alien. How you’d stop questioning things. He shifts a little on his couch and misses his eyepiece and his chat windows.
“So how does it work, exactly?” he asks, switching tack.
She’s humoring him now, but part of him thinks that perhaps she’d also rather talk about trains than what they’re meant to be talking about. “Well,” she says, with the air of someone settling down to recite a fairytale, “You get to the station…”
He interrupts her in his eagerness. “What’s a station?”
She pauses. Blinks. “It’s where the train stops for a moment and the doors to the box open. So you can get on.”
The bell chimes at 10 minutes this time. They get up at the same time and there’s a moment where her knees meet his shins and they brush against each other, hard. They both apologize. He lets her go ahead again. This time, while he’s waiting for the drugs to wear off, he thinks about the way her bones felt against his skin, and about hurtling through the city in an empty box.
The government sends him another VIRTUOS. He opens it and has to force himself not to close it immediately. So he sits through it instead. All ten minutes of it.
After about three minutes, his mind slowly adjusts to cope with the horror. He starts to notice more than the mechanics. The smell of the sweat and the rhythm of the movement drift over him. It’s been a long day, and so he falls asleep.
Three days before their next meeting, he finds her username through Sweet Hammer. And suddenly everything changes.
She’s up to Level BB256. The competitive streak in him lights up like an electric spark. He pings her a message and she pings back. It’s different from a chat window, although they could open one up if they liked. Neither of them do. They take refuge in the game’s user interface: short messages, jokes, teaming up for joint levels. She’s never played the multiplayer before. He has. Before he knows it, they’ve burned through three hours. When he finally logs off, he feels closer to her than ever, ten kilometers apart.
Close enough that as soon as she comes in the door, he starts.
“I tried relaxing,” Richard says. He keeps his face grave, almost solemn. She pauses in the entrance, eyes wide, hands reaching out and mouth already moving with platitudes.
He can’t hold it back anymore, the grin splits his face. He crows. “I’m at BA303. Catching up!”
The worry dissolves into laughter. She walks closer, shaking her head. “Well done!” she says, genuinely. “You really had me just then.” Then, moving quickly and awkwardly, she leans over and gives him a quick hug. He’s so stunned by the press and the feeling of sudden warmth that he’s still sitting there like used hardware when she releases him just as quickly and sits down before he can think.
He blinks, slowly. “Uh, thank you,” he says. He realizes he’s still grinning like an idiot and hastily rearranges his face to something more neutral. He hopes he doesn’t look constipated. “So, uh, how are you?”
He didn’t bother checking his file before the meeting this time. But the man who’d handed him his drugs today had helpfully reminded him that this session was meant to be about physical bonding and touch. It’s also a reminder that they’re being monitored, and the newborn ease sinks into discomfort again. He suddenly wonders if that’s why she hugged him.
“What’s wrong?” Susan asks.
It takes him a while to work the words out. “Nothing,” he says. He tries to smile weakly. The result must be frightening, because she edges away from him slightly. Seeing that is enough to make him crumble. “It’s really nothing,” he says, looking down at his knees. He waves his hand halfheartedly through the air. “It’s just… all of this.”
She reaches forward and catches the hand he’s left lying limply on his lap. The warmth comes rushing back. At that moment, he decides that even if she’s just doing this because they’ve been told to, he doesn’t care. It does feel good. Warm, uncomfortable and unnatural, but good. He turns his hand to hers, palm up, and they watch their interlacing fingers like children discovering a rare but beautiful beetle. “I’ve been thinking,” she says, staring at their hands, “I really like movies.”
Richard automatically thinks of the government’s VIRTUOS and winces. Her eyes widen comically. “Not those movies!” she says. Her grip tightens on his fingers. “The ones on stream. You know, old classics.”
He eyes her in disbelief. “Like the space tales and urban westerns?”
She actually blushes. It’s the first time he’s seen it and he decides it’s endearing, if odd. “They’re not all that different,” she tries to defend herself. “Anyway, I was thinking about the way most of them end. With a death, or with a kiss.” The blood is still in her cheeks, but she’s smiling again. “Sometimes both.”
“I don’t want to die,” Richard says. He’s not joking but she laughs anyway. And then she deliberately moves forward, hesitantly, until he’s overwhelmed with her physicality. At this distance, he can see the pores in her forehead and smell the light scent of sweat and electronics. She breathes and he feels the wet warmth of it hit him in the face. Part of him wants to scramble backwards, off the couch and out of the room. She stops, so close now that even his fight or flight instincts scramble and he simply freezes.
“Then how about a kiss?” she whispers, and their lips are almost touching anyway, and he suddenly remembers that if holding hands feels good, hopefully this will feel better. So he leans forward. Her lips are dry. So are his: the hazards of living in a constantly climate-controlled environment. So he goes deeper, seeking out the same soft, strong warmth that enfolded his hands. He finds it. And finds teeth. They scrape lightly against his and he shivers at that intimacy – of bone on bone.
She pulls back first, but slowly, a gentle disentanglement. He feels the cold rush in where she was. They stare at each other from across the couch. “Well,” he says lightly, because he can’t stand the silence anymore. “That was interesting.”
She has an odd expression on her face. “Do you think we were doing it wrong?” she asks him honestly. The question crushes something he didn’t realize lived inside him. “I don’t know if that’s how they do it in the movies.”
Privately, he thinks that maybe that’s because movies are fictional and the people who made them were uncivilized, underdeveloped barbarians, but he finds his bravery in words that she once spoke to him. “Maybe we just need to relax,” he says. “After all, it’s ok to fail the first few times you try something different. Isn’t it?”
The look on her face melts. She nods slowly. “I think you’re right,” she says gravely. And they practice again, and again, and again, until the bell rings at 15 minutes.
Richard thinks about the hands and the kisses all week and decides that the movies are a lie. He also decides to be righteously annoyed about that because he needs to distract himself from the knowledge that this is the last meeting before the assignment.
When he steps into the room this time, she’s waiting for him. That’s different. That’s strange. Like the fact that next week, they won’t be in this room, they’ll be in another one. And they won’t be expected to talk. He sees that knowledge on her face as well and suddenly their fledgling intimacy vanishes and they’re back to three weeks ago, trying for a conversation overshadowed by the knowledge of what’s to come. He clears his throat. “Hello,” he says, and sits down.
She smiles awkwardly. “Hi.”
If this were a chat window, there would be blinking dots in front of both of them right now. He tries to rack his brain for everything he’s learned in the last few weeks, anything at all to start off the conversation and break the tension. “What do you like?” he asks abruptly.
She blinks. “Sorry?”
He mentally kicks himself in the head. “What do you like?” he asks, slower this time. “To do, I mean? Besides Sweet Hammer and watching space tales.”
Her shoulders relax slightly. She pulls her feet up onto the couch and wraps her arms around her knees. It feels a little like she’s building a fortress against him, but at least she’s still speaking. “Music,” she says reflectively. “Sometimes I just listen to music.”
It’s a start. “What type of music?”
She hesitates and then lets it come out. “Heavy metal,” she says, a challenging look in her eyes. “Rock. Anything with a beat. When I’m at work the office plays classical and I can’t stand it. So when I get back I turn my earpiece up loud and blow my eardrums out. How about you?”
Richard smiles. This feels better. “That sounds awesome,” he says, honestly. “And it’s VIRTUOS for me. I love the Mount Everest one. You can actually smell the air, it’s so clear. And there’s nothing but you and the mountain and the climb.”
“Everest,” she says, surprised.
“What?” He feels suddenly defensive. “Didn’t pick me for a mountain climber?”
She smiles wryly. “Did you pick me for a heavy metal fan?”
He honestly can’t say that he did.
“Come,” she says. “Tell me something else about you that I wouldn’t guess.”
By the time the bell rings, he’s almost forgotten the assignment. And he knows that she likes the Pizzaworld VIRTUOS, hates one of her coworkers with a passion, and sometimes listens to rap.
The last week goes by very, very, fast.
It’s night when he cautiously steps out of his room. He still has to take a moment to brace himself against the outside world, against the shrieking hot wind and the heavy air. It’s easier than the first time he did it, when he’d actually had to stop and look up how to get out of the building he’d lived in for the last seven years. It still feels like the first time though, with his beating heart and nervous sweat.
Richard huddles into his jacket and walks quickly to the waiting government car. The door opens as soon as he steps close, a quiet automatic whir that reminds him of the sound of a coffee machine. It continues humming as he slides gingerly into the seat, processing and adjusting for his weight and shape. The entire car is lined in datacloth. If he wanted to, he could sync it with his eyepiece and project a workspace. He doesn’t.
There are no rules for this section of the journey, but it somehow feels wrong to launch himself into Sweet Hammer this time. He stares outside the windows instead. The roads are completely shadowed: after all, the car AIs don’t need light to tell where they’re going. It’s the apartments that glow, reaching up to the sky in massive towers. He twists and sees his own receding in the distance. He can’t pick out where his room is. There are no windows.
The car winds across the city. He looks up and sees a train whip past like a snake. It curves away from him into the distance, small lights marking the track. He’s never seen it before, in all of the trips to and fro. He wonders.
The car turns, and they follow the train into the night.
The city is big, but with the automated traffic it only takes forty-five minutes to get to the labs. He spends the time watching for the train like a distant star as it loops around buildings and vanishes, reappearing again in the distance like a taunt or a challenge. He’s feeling surprisingly calm and non-sweaty when the car finally stops and the door whispers open.
This ends very quickly when he steps through into the lab. It’s night, and the skeleton staff are all suited up like he might be hazardous. They watch him through the blank bubbles protecting their heads, waving him through corridor after corridor until he would be lost if it wasn’t for the map in his files sending signals through his eyepiece. He turns his thirty-ninth corner and almost jumps out of his skin. One of the suits is waiting for him, a glass carefully extended like he’s holding poison. He gulps it, grateful for the assistance. The drugs taste different this time. More potent. He’s feeling lightheaded and relaxed again by the time he reaches a small cubicle. A connector sits outside. He presses his fingers to it and speaks with his real voice. “Hello,” he says awkwardly. “Uh, it’s me. Richard.”
The connector blinks red, and then green. The door slides open. And there she is.
She’s undressed already: her clothes are folded neatly on the floor. The cubicle is a far cry from their meeting room, so carefully arranged to be inviting and spacious and decorated with blues and whites and soft cushions. In contrast, the room in front of him is empty except for its four walls, the bed, and the dim, warm light that makes him squint to see her.
“Hi,” she says. There’s a tiny curve to her lips. Richard feels the sudden urge to kiss it. The door slides shut behind him and he doesn’t notice it cutting off his escape. The room is gently heated and he feels overdressed with her looking up at him. He quickly takes his shirt off, hesitates for a moment, and then slips off the regulation pants and sits down gingerly on the bed with her.
“Hi,” he says back. Her eyes are dilated in the semi-darkness. She looks so beautiful that he leans forward to kiss her without thinking. The drugs thrum in his system like heated blood. He pulls back and leans his forehead against hers. The heating in the room pales in comparison to the warmth he feels emanating from her skin. “Are you ok?” he asks softly.
She nods. Her naked eyebrows brush his. She opens her mouth to speak but something stops her. Instead, she sighs lightly as he reaches out and touches her shoulder gently, cautiously. He doesn’t realize that he’s done it until he feels her underneath his fingers, rippling and alive. It reminds him suddenly of the words that spill out of her despite herself. It’s all right. I’m a software coder at Isla. I really like movies. Heavy Metal. Rock. Anything with a beat. She reaches for him then and he hears himself gasp. He forgets everything with that touch – the government’s VIRTUOS, the manual, the awkwardness. He can feel the throbbing of his blood pool and pull, beating out an insistent rhythm that he can’t ignore. Hypnotized, drunk, he moves with it, and she does too.
Richard wakes with a sour taste in his mouth. He is disoriented to find himself alone, despite having woken up alone every day for the past seven years. He’s back in his apartment. The suits must have been waiting outside for them the moment they drifted off, arms wrapped around each other, limbs intertwining like data cables. It makes him feel unreal somehow, like it never happened at all.
A gentle pinging sound vibrates his earpiece. He opens his eyes again, this time directly into his inbox. He has been paid in days off. He’s guessing she would have been too, that perhaps she’s waking up at exactly this same time, somewhere across the city.
Before he can think, he’s pulling up her file. Her address is marked right under her age and fertility readings. The next thing he knows, he’s blinking into a map of the city. The course charts itself out for him like a snake. Without a government car, it would take him almost two hours to walk. But there’s a train…
He stops. He blinks again, and the map goes away. He sits up on the recliner. Why does he want to see her again? The assignment is finished. By the Government’s standards, it probably went extraordinarily well. The only thing they need now is to monitor for pregnancy. If there isn’t one, he’ll be brought in again for another assignment. If there isn’t one again, another man will be DNA matched and chosen from the hundreds of apartments littering the dark city.
The thought makes him feel like he’s swallowed a power cord.
He decides to distract himself from things that he can’t control. He eats his breakfast paste and throws himself into Sweet Hammer with a vengeance. Soon, he realizes that the days off are a mistake. For the first two he loses himself in VIRTUOS and Sweet Hammer. He scales Everest again and again, but the simulation of aching muscles is somehow less satisfying than the memories of semi-darkness and sweat and the burn of his hips and hers. After that he spends far too much time thinking about Susan and how talking in real life is so different from the chat windows he opens up everyday with his supervisor. How even Facetalk can’t compare with seeing her shoulders tense, her knees clasp, her body move towards his. How he’s never really listened to music much, preferring VIRTUOS every time, but now he suddenly wants to know what heavy metal sounds like and he wants her to show him.
The thoughts stay in his head, and they coil, and coil, until one night he finds himself searching for her through the user directory. He has all of her details so it’s not hard. Before he can stop himself, he blinks at her name automatically and a chat window pops up. The same one that failed to materialize the first time they met.
Richard swallows and sits on his recliner, trying very hard not to think about what he’s doing and what it means, and waits.
Two minutes later the connection symbol blinks.
Hello again, he says in a rush, as if the words have been waiting behind his eyes all this time. I didn’t think you’d connect.
I didn’t think you would either. How… how are you?
It’s somehow easier to lie and tell the truth at the same time in text. Restless. Bored. Ok. How are you?
Richard sits back and doesn’t know how to feel. On the one hand, they don’t have to try again. On the other hand, they don’t have to try again.
Isn’t that great? It worked. We did it.
The thought warms him. We did.
And then, the dreaded blinking dots fill the screen. Richard panics. He can’t think of anything to say, despite living his life on these transparent screens. Without her presence there to anchor him, the signals to read, he can’t even guess at what she’s thinking. Until she tells him.
Anyway, I’m really tired. Maybe we can chat tomorrow?
Maybe, he says, but she’s already disconnected.
Three weeks go by. He finds he’s missing the oddest things. The way she smelled. The way she laughed to break up the silence and awkwardness, and how differently she laughed when they were sharing a joke. Because he’s a little bit slow, it takes him the three weeks to realize that he’s missing her. And that he wants to see her again, in the flesh, where there are no chat windows to run away from and no way to disconnect.
As soon as he makes the decision, the rightness of it settles into him like a second skin. One blink and the train timetable comes up. He waits until night, impatience skittering his concentration. He makes two mistakes before his supervisor, Kathryn, tells him abruptly to log out and come back tomorrow with a fresh head. He logs out, stands up, and walks to the nearest train station.
The wind fights him every step of the way. He fights back. The only time he falters is when he sees the station, high above the ground, with only a single lift built to transport goods. It trembles underneath his feet as it ascends, the air howling around it. When he reaches the station he holds onto the safety rails and doesn’t look down.
The train comes. It’s loud. He wasn’t expecting it to be so loud. He feels it before he sees it: the rumbling of the tracks rippling through the station, up his feet and into his chest. Up this close the train looks less like a snake and more like a dragon. A monstrous relic from a monstrous age. The door opens and he forces himself to walk into its empty belly. And then he promptly falls onto his face as the train starts again and the motion sends him flying to the back.
Richard grimly wedges himself against the wall and uses the empty seats to climb up, feeling like he’s scaling a mountain. Then he holds on for the strangest thirty minutes of his life, feeling the train shudder like a living thing around him, feeling like the only soul left in the world. This is what she does every day, he thinks, and suddenly he understands her.
When the train finally stops at her station, his knees are aching with the force of keeping himself upright. He keeps walking anyway, following the map blinking in his eyepiece. She’s not far away.
Her building is old. The security system seems even older, almost ancient. He doesn’t even know if his software is compatible with it, so he knocks on the door instead, feeling the impact of metal against flesh and bone. “Hello,” he says to the waiting camera. “My name is Richard.”
There is a heart-stopping minute. The seconds trickle past in silence. Fear floors him; without the drugs he feels weak. But before his knees melt to water and he turns away, the door slides open and she’s behind it.
“Come in,” she says. She’s smiling. She’s shocked that he’s here. He’s shocked too. They’re both far too shy for people who have tasted each other’s skin. But they’re there. Both there. Without the government. Without drugs. Without obligations.
Richard smiles back, brilliantly, and disconnects his eyepiece.
You can find the rest of Division: A Collection of Science Fiction Fairytales, here.