Salipa and Telo have perfect lives in the virtual reality world that humanity has retreated to after bacteria and viruses resistant to all medications take over the outside world. But when the robots that take care of their necessities in the dirty outside world start glitching, Salipa must figure out what it means to truly live if they can never return to the outside world.
I’ve been touched exactly four times in real life. The first was when my mother gave birth to me, picking up her bacteria as I slid out of her womb, the good stuff as well as the bad. My father caught me, and his hands, covered in everything that lives on our skins, made contact then, the bacteria, yeast, shed viruses, and anything else from under his fingernails spreading to my newborn epidermis. That was the second touch.
I must have been gooey and crying, and they both held me for a moment before the robot assigned to me snipped my cord, took me up in its basket, and delivered me to the cubicle where I would live the rest of my life. There it hooked me into the virtual reality mindset, the body-adapting and stimulating cradle station. Then Nan, what I eventually named my robot, turned on its caretaker mode and sent my mind into clean. Back in dirty, everything that came with me—the blanket my mother wrapped me in, the towel that wiped placenta from my face, the suction ball that pulled out the goop from my nose and mouth, the basket—was incinerated. That was right after the first Plague Legislation, back when they were still allowing natural births and cohabitating marriage units.
I wish I remembered it. My parents told me about those moments of seeing me in real life, smelling me. It wasn’t the same, holding me in clean, they said. They’d tuck the blanket around me and sing me a song, and sometimes my mother would tell me what it felt like to actually hold me. Then, my avatar still passed out back in my virtual reality bedroom, I’d pull out of clean and Nan would be above me, smiling with her LCD face screen, unhooking me from the wires and hugging me with her white plastic arms.
My parents are dead now. Their cubicle in dirty was incinerated. The only thing I have of the moment they held me is a video Nan recorded when she pulled me away from them and brought me here.
I’ve only been thinking of it lately when Telo and I go to bed. I inherited the code for my parents’ clean house, so the ephemera of their stuff is still there in the rooms, although I turned my childhood bedroom into the master bedroom and recoded the algorithm for how much space I could take up with the house. I’ve been thinking about which room would belong to the baby.
Since we elected to be assigned a baby, my avatar’s belly has been growing. Most of the time I don’t notice it, despite the code putting pressure feedback on my movement algorithms and my walk turning into a waddle. I’m getting stronger; that’s what I mainly feel. But when I get into bed, it’s hard to get comfortable. Technically, Telo could have been the one to go through the pregnancy algorithm, since we don’t believe in gender-norming or any of those religious restrictions. He’s the more nurturing of the two of us, and when I see him with his charges at the childcare center, surrounded by big-eyed, jumping kids that call him Mr. Telo, or more often with the younger ones, Mistelo, it melts me. But that’s why I had to be the one to get pregnant. Supposedly going through all the algorithm motions of natural birth, even when you’re getting the baby from a test tube, activates all those love centers and makes you feel more connected. I’m the one who needs the extra help.
Tonight, Telo pauses at the bedroom doorway, which tells me sex is on the horizon, and reaches for my hand. He scoops me up and I giggle at the rush upwards. My face in his chest, he starts to rock me. It’s the only thing that will turn me on. My therapist thinks I’m trying to get at whatever primal feeling that would have unleashed in me if it were real touch. But since the pregnancy algorithm started showing, it’s awkward and I don’t fit right. He squeezes too hard on my belly and I can’t lose myself like I used to. Telo can tell that I’m flinching. He sighs deeply, and then drops me on the bed.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “Once the algorithm’s run its course, things will get back to normal.”
“It’s not your fault,” he says, and rolls over. “Goodnight, love.”
And then we put our avatars to sleep, and I emerge into dirty.
There’s Nan again, her face screen peering into my VR immersion ball. “Hi, sunshine,” she says. She unhooks my headset, pulls me out of the ball so I don’t start spinning it through my range of motion, and starts brightening lights slowly to get my eyes used to the idea that I’m in the real, dirty world again.
Not that I want to see much in dirty, anyways. Outside it’s gray and ruined earth, trying to heal itself. All the superbugs—microbes and viruses that evolved immunity to antibiotics, that melted out of the polar ice caps and were released into the oceans, bugs we hadn’t seen for a million years—they’re all still out there, proliferating. Inside, the cubicle is a standard-issue sanitized room: only enough to feed yourself, hug your robot like you’re supposed to, bathe when you need, and then plug right back in and sleep along with your avatar. Every crack is sealed, every intake and retake valve opened only once a vacuum is established in the rest of the system. Back before the toilets were vacuum-sealed, they would spew all their bugs into the air, infecting everyone who used the same ventilation system, killing entire apartment complexes. It’s revolting, knowing how even the bacteria we need is mutating on our very skins, inside us, just a roll of the dice before they turn into something deadly; knowing that if the seals around our doors were to give way, we’d probably be puking our guts out within the week, killed by a bird flu or Ancient Mariner Infection or Limb-Taking Staph or Airborne HIV. I’m itching to log back into clean where none of that matters.
“Time to eat,” Nan announces brightly, a vacuum-sealed precooked meal arriving down the chute. “Beef chili.”
It’s chicken and potatoes—I can see that even blinking against the light. Nan’s glitches have been getting worse, but I haven’t gotten around to ordering spare parts. I know it’s important. Without our personal robotics assistants that function as our doctors, our caretakers, our alarm systems, we wouldn’t have survived past the first sweep of plagues. Without the drones and army of specialty robots meant to take our place in the outer, dirty world, farming and manufacturing and constructing, we would have to expose ourselves.
Best I can tell, Nan’s power supply is part of the problem. It’s shorting and restarting her modules at different times, and the desynchronization makes her go buggy.
“Remind me tomorrow to order a new power supply,” I say.
“Yes,” she says, “babycakes.”
“Telo?” Telo, a pro at logging into the caretaker units while at work, has logged into Nan. I hate when he does that. I feel naked in dirty, my real self less attractive than my avatar, my hair matted and greasy because no one can smell me alone in my cubicle.
“Surprise,” he says with Nan’s voice.
He hugs me with her white plastic arms, the way Nan is programmed to do every night. The hugs are supposed to be soothing, meant to combat the developmental disorders of a lifetime of not being touched, but it’s awkward. Nan runs cold, and there’s no part of her that gives. I’ve thought of wrapping her in memory foam, but that would block her panels. At least in dirty, I’m not pregnant. My stomach is flat and my range of motion intact, and I can hug him back good and hard.
He holds up the soap and makes Nan’s face a goofy grin, and I laugh and jump in the shower.
But then Nan glitches again, and she just stands there frozen with the soap in midair, hung. Ten minutes later when she starts up again, she’s only Nan and Telo has logged out.
When I wake up in clean, morning light is slicing in through the blinds and the birdsong I’ve programmed is playing on a loop from the window. Telo is next to me in the bed, dead to the world. My hand passes through his shoulder; his avatar is empty and he hasn’t logged back into it. His avatar has been sleeping later and later these mornings. I wonder what he’s doing over there in dirty. Eating, voiding, getting ready for the morning? He’s told me he looks almost the same as his avatar, except his dark hair is a lot curlier, and he lets it grow long. He has a scar on his shoulder where he fell on a sharp corner of his immersion ball when his robot wasn’t looking. His avatar’s skin is as smooth as glass.
“Remember to order a new power supply.” I hear Nan’s voice barely in range of my perception, her whispering into my headset back in dirty. I disabled her direct clean login after the last time hearing her voice loud above me made me jump out of my skin. This way, she’s soft and distant, the way I like the dirty world.
I groan, stretch, try to remember where I left my virtual tablet before I logged out last time. If clean was unregulated, I could simply wish the tablet into my hands. I get annoyed that part of the legislation to create clean required that everything be tied to a physical representation as close to real life as possible. So we don’t become alien to ourselves, none of this living exclusively in our heads. They wanted to pretend the world was back the way they dreamed it. I get it—nostalgia. Even though none of us can eat in clean, my parents left the kitchen in the digital representation of the house they used to have in real life, and I didn’t code it out when I inherited because it was always there in my childhood. I use it as my meditation room where I try to imagine the smell of coffee.
I find the tablet in the kitchen, blinking on a stool.
Things have been tight since paying for our test-tube baby, so before I order the part, I check our bank account. But there’s more money in there than there should be, by at least five hundred bitcoins.
Telo yawns loudly behind me, walking stiffly into the kitchen.
“What’s this?” I say, and I show him the tablet screen.
“Oh, I took on a few extra kids.”
“More than a few.”
“We talked about this, right? Wasn’t it what you wanted?”
“Just be careful. If anything went wrong with a few of them at the same time…”
“Nah. I’ve got all the luck. You shouldn’t worry about it. Off to work yet?” He leans against the doorframe, and god, his avatar is so beautiful. His dirty self, of course, looks less perfect, less symmetrical, and his eyebrows droop downwards. Still, the avatar is a cousin to him. Or at least that’s what he says. I’ve never logged into his robot, and I don’t want to. Even when he does it, it feels like looking into someone’s secret closet, invading the one time they can be alone.
“Just as soon as I get this belly under control,” I say, pulling on the dress I’ve recoded for maternity.
I ride the bus into the industry district. Avenue of the Giants features skyscrapers for the greatest minds in clean: the philosophers in the Commission for Digital Humanization, the engineers in the Commission for Stabilization, and the scientists in the Commission for Re-entry, my building. There doesn’t come a day when I’m not thankful that these are government task forces, instead of corporate-run research which would have guaranteed that only the rich would be able to be human or re-enter dirty once we figured out how to fight the diseases. I flash my badge at the Re-entry doors.
In the lab, Alicia is dancing behind the blood samples while they run. This lab is set up with a corresponding lab over in dirty, manned by robots. Here, when Alicia puts in blood samples to run, robots put the real-life samples from humans or birds and set them spinning in the machine. It’s seamless. It makes me wonder what would happen if clean were ever perfect, if we could eat and smell and taste here. Would we ever want to leave? Would we even care about that other world we ruined?
“Happy day, happy day,” Alicia says.
I nod as Fermat walks in.
“How’s re-entry going?” Fermat says.
“Her robots have been breaking birds again,” Alicia says brightly.
“Damnit.” I turn around and something flutters in my corner of the lab, a reminder of the dirty world. Each TV screen on my wall is assigned to a drone feed or robot following flocks of birds back in dirty. My tiny part of the re-entry project is studying patterns of insect transmission of the avian flu. I’m working on a harmless version of the virus that spreads innocuously through mosquito transmission but prevents the worse one from taking hold in the host. We can’t realistically vaccinate every bird on the planet, but if we inoculate a few and the harmless virus spreads…then we might gain traction. Of course, I’m always fighting with the research group on the top floor who thinks the answer is bringing mosquitos to extinction altogether.
The bird flailing on the top right monitor has a broken wing. I can see the plastic camouflage robot hands it’s surrounded by, robots meant to sneak up on the birds and capture them for tagging, blood draws, and injections. Except some software glitch keeps making their hands too tight around the birds’ bodies, killing my research subjects.
I log into the offending robot, bringing its tactile feed into my immersion ball back in dirty. In my hands is the bird. Every time I try to merely touch the bird, the camouflaged robot hands punch the bird’s delicate body, jerking and missing its mark half the time.
Freeze, I instruct the robot. I log out and emerge back at the lab. I groan.
“Was that one of the incubators?” says Fermat.
The eighth bird in as many days, bringing my flock down to just the minimum for viral mutation conditions. I can’t afford to send another robot and have the same thing happen. “I can’t lose this grant,” I say.
Alicia keeps pirouetting in front of the samples, her way of dealing with conflict. She must be having a bad day with her research, too.
Fermat, always the sensible one, glances down at my stomach, tabulates the cost against the pay of my grant. “You better get that sample some other way, then. I can’t believe your data’s almost ruined.”
Alicia stops her dancing, already knowing what I’m thinking. “No. You don’t have to go out there.”
I feel like a rock sinks through my torso. Leaving my container in dirty is one of my greatest nightmares. What if my bioball breaks? What if decontamination goes awry? At least I wouldn’t be able to spread it to anyone else. “I think I have to,” I say.
Fermat shudders. Alicia starts dancing again, taking one giant leap in the air. At the apex, she gets stuck and her avatar goes transparent, shimmering and splayed mid-jump. She’s logged out of her avatar.
“We had work to do!” Fermat yells. He throws a lab notebook at her avatar, but the notebook goes right through her. For the rest of the day, with her avatar floating up there, we’ll be distracted, waiting for her to drop from the air when she logs back in.
And that brings me to the third touch. An hour later back in dirty, I’m looking for my flock. I’m pushing the joystick, rolling my containment bioball forwards near the waterfront where both mosquitos and birds are plentiful. I only see one other bioball out, likely another researcher since few people are approved for them. My bioball is clear plastic all around, and the bottom of it gives me a clear window through puddles and waste canals. It makes me gag, all that muck swirling around underneath me, filled with bugs that are compelled to feed off and destroy me. Inside, though, I’m safe.
The birds flutter around me as I roll down the old boardwalk. I turn my camouflage mode on, and they stop seeing me. One of the rocks ripples, and I know that’s my glitching robot, in camouflage mode too. The bird is dead in its hands, although the robot’s skin is reflecting the sky behind him, so it looks like an upside-down dead bird is stuck in the gray air. At times I think dirty is just as virtual as clean.
I push my hands through the sealed glove openings and unclench the robot’s invisible hands. The bird spills into my gloves. A drone whirs overhead, delivering the sample kit. I pull out a needle from the kit and take a sample from the necrotizing bird. I pack the bird in a plastic bag and place it into the drone’s trunk. Maybe something that can be used later to track how decomposing tissue spreads and nurtures the virus. “Name sample as decomposing subject 932,” I say, looking at the code tag on the bird’s ankle. The drone’s light blinks once in affirmation.
I keep seeing ripples out of the corner of my eye back inland, but I don’t see any wildlife and the rest of my robots are dispatched following other control and experiment flocks. It must be vertigo from moving around in real life instead of the controlled movements of clean.
I carefully roll my ball into the flock, the starlings preening and eating mites off each other. I pick them up gently for my samples, crooning their own birdsong at them through my speakers, holding their warm bodies in my hands—almost my hands, except separated by the rubber of the gloves. What would it feel like to run a bare fingertip along a feather?
I chose starlings for my research because of how invasive they are. Someone let them loose in New York’s Central Park centuries ago out of nostalgia—they wanted to release all the birds from Shakespeare’s plays—and within a hundred years they were all over the continent, taking over other birds’ nests. If you wanted to track spread, what better species? Not much different from humans, in that respect. Germs were nature’s population control, but we refuse to give up our freedom. We’re another kind of germ, spreading unchecked.
I let the last bird go, dispatch the drone to our lab’s twin in dirty. “Return to the lab for repairs,” I tell the robot, but it appears to be glitching, frozen. “Reboot,” I say.
Fine. I roll back down the boardwalk, cross past the barricade holding back the rising sea. The ripples in the air start up again, this time accelerating down the street towards me, the ripple of a camouflage’s slight delay. It’s on a collision course.
I pull the joystick hard left, and whatever it is glances off my ball, throwing me rolling. I smash into the closest wall, and it caves and throws me into darkness.
My ball’s emergency lights flash in my face. There’s a hissing air leak somewhere. The lights show me I’m inside the ruins of what used to be an ancient restaurant, one of those places where people in dirty used to congregate and pass germs, like airplanes and airports. The air smells like rotten fish and mold. I want to cry; if I can smell dirty that means everything in the air is in here with me. My chest throbs against the seat harness, but other than that, I’m not hurt. I roll the ball out of the crunching mess and emerge into the gray light.
“Are you okay?” I hear a female voice over crackling speakers.
I want to scream at her for not seeing me, but then I realize I left my camouflage mode on too. We couldn’t see each other. “The ball’s breached,” I say. Center left, where the air is hissing out. I hold my hand up to the hole, trying to plug the air.
“Mine, too,” she says. She drops the camouflage. She’s holding her arm. Her hair is everywhere, come loose from the crash. She looks like Alicia, almost, except her eyes are black instead of blue, her nose more hooked.
“What are you doing out here?”
“Never mind,” she says. “We have to get back to filtered air.”
Panic surges up in me. I turn my bioball, message Nan to prepare a decontamination entry.
“Wait!” Alicia says. She pushes her ball up to mine, lining up our breaches.
“Do you have a patch?” I say. “What are you doing?”
She puts a finger through, her fingertip on my palm.
At first, I’m revolted. All the microbes from her hands, from everything she’s ever touched, cultured underneath her fingernails and attaching to me. Then the soft rub, the heat of her fingertip, the prickle of the virgin sensation. It feels like joy and pain at once, everything forbidden.
Mosquitos hover around us. Are they my mosquitos, harmless? Or wild ones, carrying death?
“I have to go,” I say, yanking my ball away, rushing back to decontamination with my palm pressed against the breach.
My hand burns the whole way back, and I keep telling myself it’s not flesh-eating bacteria, it’s not a mosquito bite, it’s just touch. My third touch. The only one I remember.