A short story by Siobhan Chesson.
Tessa looked out of the window. The street was clean and bright, its tarmac newly laid, pressed and smoothed. A dark line stretching onwards out of sight. She wondered what the texture of the road would feel like beneath her feet. It looked softer than the hard wood flooring of her flat. The planks had become so worn and tedious against the unblemished soles of her feet, that she’d once shredded her fingernails and filled her skin with splinters prying them up. She’d stepped out onto the sticky underlay beneath, breathing hard, hairs sliding in the saliva bubbles by her mouth, and flexed her toes, revelling in the new texture.
Outside, the birds perched on roofs and aerials and the neat, trimmed square of hedges. They flew startled in a swarm of different directions as a cat grown fat on birds and voles and rats jumped for their masses. Successful, a pigeon stuffed in its mouth, the cat curled up in a patch of sunlight streaming down on one of the empty driveways, where cars used to sit.
Tessa watched the cat devour the bird. Its limp neck hung from its mouth.
“Tessa, you’ve been out of sight for almost three minutes!” Izzy’s voice was carefully cheerful.
The pigeon’s head disengaged completely from its body, and fell to the driveway with a noise Tessa could not have imagined.
“Ren could bring you back, if I alerted them!”
Tessa closed her eyes and felt with one hand for the handle of the cupboard door she had opened behind her. Opened wide as it was, she was hidden from the computer screen’s sight. She closed the cupboard door, revealing her back, and put on a smile. The cat sicked up feathers.
“Coming. No need to alert Ren.” Tessa turned away from the window and back to the clear computer screen settled on her desk. Izzy was watching her through it, seated at her own desk, smiling. She’d covered her bald patches with a scarf, but when she moved, hair fell in gossamer strands onto her desktop.
“Good. Great. Now come sit!” She leant back in her seat and vigorously inclined her head. Stress-malted fuzz showered the back of her office chair.
Tessa rounded her desk, Izzy’s image on the double-sided screen flipping as she passed, so they were facing each other once again as she sat. With her foot, Tessa kicked aside some of the shredded paper her flat was littered with, including a mangled spring she’d ripped free from her sofa when she’d gutted it.
Izzy smiled at her. Tessa smiled back. She’d become proficient at getting the waxy, pale skin around her eyes to crinkle, so that her smile didn’t look as hollow as Ren’s.
There was a large, holographic clock on the shelf behind Izzy’s head. They weren’t meant to look at clocks during Screen Time, but Izzy’s eyes kept darting to the right of her screen, one side of her lip sagging down over her teeth before she recovered and replaced it, and Tessa knew she was watching the reflection of the blinking numbers: Time that wasn’t passing. It certainly wasn’t ticking; ticking clocks had been outlawed years ago, after people had started crushing in their skulls against ever-present walls to the ever-present rhythm of the tick
Tessa blinked as 13:02 changed to 13:03 over Izzy’s shoulder.
“So was the weather nice?”
“Pardon?” Tessa always said pardon. It was polite. Her mother had taught her that through the computer screen.
“The weather, sweetheart.” Izzy’s shawl slipped off her shoulder and she made no move to correct it. Tessa blinked at the exposed hollow of her collarbone, noting it must be one of Izzy’s starvation months – a February, then – or an April or a June or an August or an October. But not December. Izzy let herself enjoy Christmas. Tessa reasoned, by the sun slowly rotting the pigeon head on the drive outside, that it must be June or August. “That’s what you were doing all the way over there by the window, yes?” Izzy added, “Just gathering important Conversation Fuel?”
“Yes. Conversation Fuel,” Tessa said, just a little too loudly, and they talked about the weather, any weather, until her screen, with a robotic distortion of Izzy’s voice, cut off three hours later, the Screen-Time Cap kicking in.
Tessa kept her smile for a few more moments, blinking in the sunlight angled in her eyes, haloing the fuzz of her lashes. She tried to count them, but they shifted with the darting movement of her lids, and she lifted one hand to pluck one free, and settle it on the back of her opposite hand. A curving black line. She prodded it to sit in the gully of one of the many curving pink scars her nails had permanently pressed into her skin.
She’d made it ten lashes down when a cool rubber hand grabbed her wrist.
“Refrain,” said Ren.
They would not let go of her wrist; Tessa could have broken the android’s arm, and still they would not have let go. So instead she let the pinch of lashes dust down her cheek and into her lap, and Ren’s fingers receded.
They rounded the desk smoothly. Tessa knew they would fetch two crackers from the kitchen cupboard and the butter from the fridge. There were no knives.
“You enjoyed your talk with Izzy.” It could have been a statement, could have been a question. The androids struggled to parse the intricacies of human intonation, so they spoke in a tone half-way between the two, and let the humans decide.
“Yes,” said Tessa.
Ren returned with the crackers and the butter, spreading the butter on both crackers painstakingly with the edge of one infallibly clean nail, and handed one over for Tessa to chew. Ren would eat the other, because the first models did nothing but sit and stare as their human ate, and the human would sob and scream and cry at the thing they were trapped with. Ren would have to throw it up later.
Tessa chewed the cracker with the inside of her cheek and bit down hard on a molar that ached with cavity. A cavity which she’d kept secret from Ren, because the pain was a welcome novelty, and they would want to take it away.
At first, when the Indoors had begun and the Together was quashed, to keep everyone safe, and clean, and to halt transmissible disease entirely, people had not been given an android. They had screens and windows and themselves. Themselves, themselves, themselves. They’d talk to their rooms, the odd phrases that occurred to them, stray thoughts spilling into the air. The stray thoughts became all thoughts, whispered and shouted and screamed in hoarse voices that demanded reply.
The later generations were given android companions, ones that carried no danger, that could not be endangered in return.
The butter tasted of disinfectant. Ren reeked of it. When they touched things, they left bitter residue behind.
Tessa finished the cracker and ignored the bland uptick of Ren’s mouth, surreptitiously picking at the row of scabs on her knee under the table.
The flat was warm. Opening a window was forbidden. Tessa removed her dress and lay on the bed, sweat trickling down from her unshaven armpits to the sheets beneath her. There were seventy-two tiles on her bedroom ceiling. She counted them again.
Ren stood in the doorframe. They blinked very little.
“Lay here with me,” said Tessa, and Ren complied, climbing into the space beside her. They laid like a plastic doll without joints.
“Do you not want to ask why?”
“I am to provide Companionship, when you are not with others,” they replied, and Tessa pressed her sweat-salted lips together. Ren only appeared from rest when the screen was off. They were to provide privacy when Tessa engaged in human contact.
Tessa restarted her ceiling tile count. She made it to tile thirty-eight, and then she reached out and grabbed Ren’s limp hand.
She wanted to let go of it immediately. She held tighter.
It was cool, disinfectant wet and unresponsive. Under the rubber, her fingers closed on a plastic shell, not bones and ligaments and veins thumping with blood.
Holding hands was meant to elicit an oversensitive buzz of skin on skin. Dry palm against dry palm. Clammy hand around clammy hand. Fingertips against worn lines and wrinkles. That was how she’d heard it described on websites, anyway – websites she’d find and devour for one hour, maybe two, before they were purged from existence and the stories they shared – from those who remembered the Together, from those who remembered what it used to be like to touch – were lost.
Tessa held grimly onto Ren’s hand until she reached tile seventy-two, and swallowed hard around the tightness in her throat.
“I want to hold a human hand.”
Ren frowned violently, deep enough to pull their faux skin taught and thin, the lights beneath shining through. They plucked Tessa’s hand free and dropped it on her bare stomach.
“That was selfish.”
“Yes,” Tessa whispered.
“You would put them in danger.”
“You might give them something. Make them sick. Make them ill. Make them die.”
“They might give something to you.”
Tessa swallowed again. “They might not,” she whispered, just a breath over her lips, “I might not.”
Ren sat up straight from the waist, and turned their dead eyes to frown reprovingly down at Tessa. “These are selfish thoughts. Compassion is a fundamental of humanity – apart, you keep each other safe. You keep each other alive. You will not betray your fellows with self-centred desires.”
Tessa shook her head until their clipped sentences ended. Her hair grew static as it rubbed against her pillow.
She looked to the bedroom’s monitor screen, waiting for a reprimand alert from the Safety Supervisors, but Ren must have decided her words didn’t rank as a high enough infraction for report, because Tessa waited, and the screen stayed silent.
The next evening, Tessa spent a night screaming into the flesh of her arm. She clamped her teeth down, her aching molar wobbling, whilst the twang of hundreds of identical guitar strings were plucked in the flats around her, in time to the sanctioned Enrichment Session that had flickered automatically on to the glass of her TV screen.
People still died.
Tessa once knew a dead man. They were all placed on a rotating schedule with their neighbours for their Screen Time. His name was Ted. He spent ten minutes of their mandated hour of socialisation forcing some amusement out of the alliterative phrase, ‘Tessa and Teddy together today!’ lisping on the S’s and stumbling on the tut-tut-tut of the rhythmic words.
Tessa stood at the window. She wanted to hide herself with the open cupboard door, but Ren had kept it shut with a strong grip and stood beside her – one eye on the road outside, one pointed sharply, unnaturally, to the left, watching the top of her head.
The pigeon head on the drive had been cleared. Two vans on the perfect tarmac.
They were sleek and silver, ‘Private Ambulance’ stamped on their sides, both vehicles windowless but for their driver’s cabins. One of them had its back doors flung wide, and men distorted by layers of protective gear and respirators bound tight to their heads emerged from the flats opposite. Two of them carried a stretcher. On it was Ted.
Even dead, Tessa noticed, peeling skin from her thumbnail, Ted did not get to taste fresh air. They took him to the waiting van wrapped tight in his own plastic bubble, like a doll in polythene wrap. Tessa tugged the sliver of skin almost down to her knuckle, the flesh red and sore beneath. “They always come in twos.”
Ren swivelled their right eye to join the left and regarded her.
The metallic taste of blood bloomed across Tessa’s cracked tongue as she pushed the raw edge of her thumb into her mouth and bit down, hard. “The deceased removal vehicles,” she garbled, and pulled her thumb free to inspect the segmented indents her teeth had made on the tender skin. The van’s doors shut Ted’s corpse from sight. “Vans. Vans are allowed company.”
The words were bitter in her mind. Aloud, she sounded like Ren.
She put her thumb to her teeth again and nibbled. Ren turned from her, feet pattering on the wood, then pulling against the slight tug of the sticky underlay Tessa had never covered back up, before pattering again. The men outside clambered into the vans.
A moment later Ren returned with a plaster, pulling Tessa’s thumb toward them. With the constantly secreted disinfectant they cleaned the small wound, and wrapped it tight in the beige fabric. Tessa let them do it. The first van, the one without Ted’s body, lurched to life and pulled slightly away from the curb. Then it stopped, idling, the electric engine silent, and Tessa could see the driver peering out of his window at the van behind him. Waiting.
Ren dropped her arm, and it swung to the folds of her skirt. The second van started up, and drawing level on the wide road, they both rolled away across the crisp tarmac as one.
She continued to watch where they had turned out of sight in synchrony, balling her hand in the swaying fabric by her thigh.
“Ted is gone now,” said Ren.
Tessa just nodded at the android. The officials in the vans were the first human figures she had seen unfiltered by screens for months. Under the protection of their hazmat suits, their skin must’ve crawled with gooseflesh – brought on involuntarily by the weight of the eyes that stared down at them from all the windows around, and which they were taught never to recognise.
“We can leave the window now,” prompted Ren.
“You can.” Tessa spread her hand against the glass, tapping it with the cushioned lump of her plastered thumb.
Ren did not move. Usually, Ren left. Tessa turned to them.
With their face, they were glaring, uncomprehending, down at the place where the vans had been. Their eyes remained empty, curiously unaffected by the expression.
“There is something.”
It was their not-a-question, not-a-statement voice. They looked to Tessa, and tilted their head a calculating amount, mimicking Tessa’s body language. Tessa knew they were mimicking her, mirroring how she cocked her head with every question. In the small square in which she saw herself during Screen Time, her eyes – captivated by her own bedraggled image – drifted more often than allowed: Narcissus blinking at a pixelated lake.
The pose looked stiff on Ren, who still imitated her with a slight lean of the head. Tessa dropped her hand from the window.
“I miss it,” she said, “the world before.”
“You have never known the world before.”
“That doesn’t matter,” she said. Ren would not understand the yearning she ached with. Tessa had never been sick, but she imagined that the cavernous pit that gnawed at her insides was what sickness felt like.
And then she started to cry.
The flat had seen everything she had to give it, expect her tears. Never once had she succumbed.
Tessa blinked and more fell, skimming over her wan skin. The first droplet had traced its way down the length of her face, and hung off her jaw. Her next breath was hitched.
“I,” she said, her throat strangling the words on the way up, “I just – I want-”
She sniffed. Snot cooled on her upper lip. “Report me, what does it matter-”
“Tessa,” Ren repeated, the increased volume of their voice drowning out the rest of her sentence. They were stoically watching Tessa cry. “In a moment,” they began, “I am going to have a temporary malfunction with my audio processors.”
Tessa frowned, and the action prompted the tears sitting on her lash line to fall. Ren did not have malfunctions.
“Unfortunately, for this period I will be unable to hear your communications. Audio recording will be momentarily halted.”
The tip of Tessa’s nose dripped, and she wiped the residue away with the back of her hand, eyes wide as Ren stared blandly back. Then she nodded.
A flashing sequence of red lights under Ren’s facsimile ear, the faint static screech of warped audio emitting from it, and Ren turned their back.
Tessa looked at the broad line of their shoulders, wetting her lips.
“I want to meet another person,” she said, “another human person, in the flesh. I want to touch their human skin, their hands and wrists; elbows and chest and jaw. Brush my thumbs against collarbones, cradle a face. I want to press lips to lips and pass pathogens and viruses and countless wiggling bacteria between us whilst neither of us worry, tangled instead in the action of the kiss. I want to hold someone who will hold me back and lick their sweat and its impurities from their neck I want to be right there infecting the breathing space of someone, anyone, and I’m sorry.”
She stopped crying. The tear tracks dried as crusty salt. She swallowed and looked to the screens, awaiting alert and punishment. The inactive glass warmed in the shafts of sunlight Tessa and Ren’s bodies had not blocked.
Tessa waited a few minutes, tensed and watching, counting the seconds in her head. Inaccurately. She’d never seen the speed of a ticking second hand.
Nothing. She bodily turned Ren back around, avoiding their eye as their lights started to blink in sequence again, flashing blue before disappearing entirely.
“Apologies,” they said, then: “did I miss any requests?”
The cat outside was back. It leapt up, and sat itself on the edge of a wall, tail swishing, keen eyes studying the bush it had emerged from. A second cat wiggled free from the leaves, and joined the first on its perch.
“No,” said Tessa. “I said nothing.”