Zero Days by Caitlin MacEwan

It had been six years since Iaso last had physical contact, a fact she was proud of. Even then, it was in a sterile unit with a doctor. If that was discounted it was another seven, essentially from when she had been able to move to a major city.

In the years since, the city had become an almost flawless system with mandatory isolation suits in public and every flat complete with an anti-contamination porch that ensured the living spaces were clean. The statistics for disease and hygiene levels between cities like the one Iaso adored and archaic country towns were truly staggering, enough to keep her from physically visiting her family at all. They came to her every few years, but by the time they got clearance into the city and rented isolation suits, the two-week holidays were little more than five days. She appreciated the effort, but video-calls were really sufficient.

A favourite aspect of city life for Iaso was the Wireless: a virtual reality network that both connected major business and allowed for safe socialisation; important meetings, birthday parties, and consequence-free raucous weekends were available. Even simulated sex was possible (and common), without the risk of an unwanted pregnancy or disease. It was popular enough to include most citizens, an access point standard in almost every home.

It began as an ordinary night, with Iaso more than ready for some time on the Wireless. She’d completed her work quota for the day, statistically analysing data for the government, and had felt a tension headache beginning. She set a drink and nutrition packet next to her access point and perched on the edge of the seat, consuming both with minimal fuss before reclining into the familiar position. She relaxed when the pin-prick sensation of her nervous system being accessed shivered across her body, and then it faded as the virtual world pieced around her. In mere minutes it had loaded and she was free to pick a hub. She selected the government employee ‘building’ to drink with some of her colleagues and friends, listen to the hum of music and smoke a few cigarettes. It was an easy few hours; she kissed a handsome man at the bar and added him to her contact list to meet another day.

She moved on after that, staring idly over the transparent menu and trying to decide her next location; it was a toss-up between the park or a long drive. Her hands froze in their wavering when she saw a flicker across the landscape. The second time it happened she knew for certain something was off. She immediately tapped her shoulders twice with the opposite hand: the quick-exit shortcut.

As the world shed around her, she tried to take in as much of her apartment as she could. She felt the last probes leave her body just as someone popped into her field of view.

‘Good! I didn’t know how to peel you off that bed of nails.’

In her apartment, breathing her air, was a woman. Iaso felt her pulse sky-rocket and she sat up slowly, ‘No.’

Without a thought, the intruder touched her back to steady her, putting her ungloved hand on her bare shoulder. Iaso flinched, her reactions dulled by the wake-up process of using the Wireless. Disgust flared up, alongside the desire to wash herself immediately, but something else ached.

‘Ah, yes. You’re neurotic about your touch records.’ A laugh, light and airy.

‘Out,’ Iaso mumbled, and then strengthened it, ‘Get out!’

‘Too late. You’re next on the list for rescuing.’

Iaso looked up at the woman who wasn’t clean, was even sweaty, with short, vagabond-ish hair and an upbeat attitude completely at odds with Iaso’s crumbling life.

‘I’m fine – safe.’ Iaso tried something else, something softer: ‘Please, just leave. Please.’

That got her a gentler look from the intruder, ‘Wheels are in motion, sorry. But listen, it’s not bad. I’m Pearl and once we’re out of here, I’ll answer whatever questions you have.’

Iaso shuddered, still feeling a lingering sensation from the other’s touch. She rose to her feet, realising that physically she couldn’t win, but there had to be an alternative.

‘I can give you money, and I won’t report this breach.’

‘First of all, you would report me as soon as I was out of the room,’ Pearl didn’t seem phased by this as she grinned, offering Iaso what she momentarily thought was her isolation suit, but was in fact just a cloth robe, ‘Secondly, we have money already. Put this on if you don’t want touched.’

Iaso took the robe gingerly, looking over it for any obvious signs of dirt before she pulled it on. Anything was better than her skin directly being contaminated by this woman.

‘I know it’s hard, but try to relax,’ Pearl checked her watch and stood close; so close that Iaso couldn’t help but lean away. ‘We’re going back to base. We gotta break out. Then we can talk properly.’

‘Base? Talk about what? Surely, this is a misunderstanding-’

Iaso was pulled against Pearl’s side, and the other woman's thick jacket began to ripple from a sudden wind. Metal began to cocoon them quickly, a soft ‘shhct’ as panels slotted into place.

‘…one. Now, hold on tight.’

As the last light was blocked out, Iaso felt a hard jolt. Whatever they were in was pulled through the wall, then the air, and she instinctively clung to the only stable thing she could - Pearl. And some part of her, that she considered dirty and primitive, thought that maybe being touched wasn’t so bad after all.

***

Caitlin MacEwan is 25, lives in the Highlands of Scotland and has been writing for over 15 years. She writes short-fiction, poetry and is currently working on a few longer projects. You can find her on twitter @snufflur or on Flickr @grufflump.

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