The following short story is based on a conversation that I had recently with a work colleague; a “what if” sort of discussion that captured my imagination. I hope that you enjoy it.
The bus moves as if by magic. I know that it’s not magic, of course. Of course I do. But it might as well be, moving smoothly along the empty bus lane, passing empty cars and empty shops. Tariq used to say it was eerie, back when Tariq was still here. But it’s just me now. I haven’t seen another human being in six months, maybe longer. It’s like something out of a horror movie, Tariq used to say. I’m not sure I agree. I find it peaceful, almost relaxing. Besides, after all this time I’m kind of used to it. I’m not sure what that says about me.
The bus glides to a halt, stopping just outside my office building, the same as it does every morning. I mumble thanks to the empty driver’s seat as I exit, more out of habit than anything else. Outside the morning sun is warm on my back and the streets are empty, silent. I take a deep breath and walk in through the automatic doors, heading across the silent lobby towards the waiting lift. I mumble ‘good morning’ to the empty reception desk as I pass. I don’t know why I keep doing that.
I leave iTunes open on my HeadGear on as I sit down at my desk; Queen’s Greatest Hits serenade me as I connect to the company network. The HeadGear takes care of that too, recognising my location and automatically logging on to my corporate account. Almost immediately my ears ring with the ping of notifications; unread emails, urgent voicemails, meeting requests… It’s endless. The HeadGear sends my automated excuses and the meeting requests vanish. The voicemails are deleted – they’re always blank anyway. The emails I’ll get to, once I’ve had my coffee.
The kitchen is pleasantly bare of company. I like having it to myself. There’s still a queue for the drinks dispenser, however; I wait for the dashboard light to switch to green, indicating that it’s free, and I step forward to dial up a double espresso, extra sugar. Brown, not white. I hesitate for a moment, then request extra caffeine. It was a rough weekend.
The machine dispenses beautiful black ambrosia and I return to my desk. When I take my first sip, enjoying the harsh, bitter taste, the HeadGear beeps, displaying a health warning in the centre of my vision. I dismiss it with an irritable thought. I’ve long since disabled them in my settings but here the company protocols override my personal preference file.
I glance around. Another pointless habit. The other desks are empty, as usual. They’ve been empty for months. The office used to be busy, so full of people, but they soon disappeared. They were thinned out, one by one. Tariq was the last to go. He was like me; most comfortable in his own company. I liked him for a while, but when his social pool became smaller he got clingier. I hate clingy. I shudder as I remember Tariq in those last few days, pinging my HeadGear with IMs and emails, desperate for conversation. I turn up the volume on my dashboard to drown out the thought. I used to use the music to distract me from the banal chatter of other people; now I use it to distract me from the memory of it.
I reluctantly open my inbox. Seventy-five unread emails, all marked urgent. They’re always marked urgent and yet they very rarely are. Requests for project updates, software tweaks. One of them is demanding that I change the colour of an icon to cornflower blue. I roll my eyes. Still, the quiet gives me the opportunity to work through the messages quickly. Occasionally the phone rings. I don’t bother answering any more. There’s always silence at the other end.
At midday I decide to take an early lunch. There’s a new burger vendor that I want to try – the latest attempt to resurrect the Five Guys brand outside of the US. I take a shortcut, slipping out of the complex’s back gate and wandering across the carpark. As usual the HeadGear tells me the safest place to walk.
The restaurant is pleasingly bare, although the HeadGear has some trouble finding me a free table. Once I’ve sat down it notes my order – I’ve been thinking about it all weekend – and communicates it to the restaurant server. A chime in my ear confirms that my PayPal details were accepted and moments later a hatch opens up in my table as my meal is dispensed. The burger is good, juicy and well-cooked. Not bad for retextured synthetic protein. Tariq used to say that he didn’t like replicated food; he claimed it had a strange aftertaste. I’ve never been able to tell the difference.
The meal earns me another health warning, for fats and salts this time – irritatingly, office protocols remain in effect during office hours even outside of the building – so I decide to walk back the long way round, through the park, to burn some extra calories and get the damned Health Monitor off my back. And that’s when I saw her. My first human being in six months. Clearly I’m just as remarkable to her as she is to me; she spots me almost immediately, and begins jumping up and down and waving at me. I swallow, hard, suddenly nervous, and cautiously approach.
She seems overwhelmingly happy to see me. Her name is Sophie, she says. She lives on the other side of the city with her girlfriend. She has a boyfriend who lives in the next city over. They mostly keep to themselves, she says, but today she felt like branching out. She offers me a cup of coffee from her Thermos and asks if I would mind chatting for a moment. I agree, and we sit on a nearby bench. The HeadGear confirms that it’s free.
Sophie and I talk about a lot of things; living in relative isolation, working at empty offices, music, television. I’m cautious at first but soon relax into it, as Sophie is ridiculously easy to talk to. We’re both Doctor Who fans, it seems. We exchange thoughts on the twenty-fifth Doctor, the latest season and the influx of female writers – about time, we both agree. Then the conversation moves on to politics. Sophie reveals some conservative thoughts on transhumanism that I find unpalatable. I find myself making my excuses to return to work.
Sophie asks if she can have my Skype ID. Her boyfriend would love to meet me, she says. Perhaps I’d like to come over for dinner? I find her too forward, and I’m no longer sure that I like her. She presses this issue, coming over a little aggressive. Surely, she says, I want to spend time with like-minded people? What’s wrong with her, she asks? Why don’t I want to hang out? What’s the issue?
I start to get anxious. I tell her that I don’t think it’s a good idea that we hang out again. She wants to know why, of course. We’ve just met, I tell her, and she’s coming on a little strong. Sophie swears at me, and says a few unpleasant things. Sighing, I access my HeadGear toolbar and add her to my block list. Sophie immediately vanishes from view whilst simultaneously, I assume, I vanish from hers. The park is empty and peaceful once again. Shrugging, I begin making my way back to work. I wonder, momentarily, whether I’m too sensitive, then I shake my head as I dismiss the thought. The problem isn’t me, it’s other people. It’s always been other people.