A quarantine story
Hi there. Thanks for tuning in. The accent that tells you this bleak tale is Russian, and if that helps, you’re welcome to imagine that you’re in a dull, gray, mirthless Russian city they like to show in the movies. Though the location doesn’t matter to us, because in a few seconds… you wake up.
You wake up in your apartment to the street loudspeakers that remind you that quarantine’s in place: no gatherings. Stay home, save lives.
You reach for your phone, but it isn’t where you left it last night. You stagger around the rooms looking for it but can’t find it. All other gadgets with an Internet connection are missing, too. Have you been… burgled?
You are miffed beyond measure and determined to report the crime. There’s a police station just down the road. Oh, wait – the quarantine. Before going outside, you need a mask, gloves, and sanitizer. Here they are! Now you’re ready.
The street’s empty. The landscape is pre-apocalyptic as it was yesterday. The weather is hopeless, too, with its everlasting mist that hangs in the air.
There are some people walking at a distance; they hurry away when they see you.
On the way to the police station you see a café. You stop, curious, because its doors are open and there’s no sign “Takeout only.” You come in and sit down at the bar. A robot rolls up to you and asks you to punch in your order on the screen on its belly. You get a coffee and croissant; they are instantly served. Whoa! That must be the bleak future they’re talking about. You finish your drink and get back into the street.
At last, you are at the police station. It’s unusually deserted. You wander around the empty halls, trying to find someone and finally you see a man in a hazmat suit, thoughtfully punching the keys on a typewriter.
“What?” he snaps.
You explain the situation: you woke up and found all your gadgets gone. It’s got to be a burglary, right?
“Ah,” the man shakes his head. “What’s the use, the Internet is dead anyway.”
“What?” How’s that even possible?
The hazmat man sees your bewilderment and offers, “It cleared space for something new, if you know what I mean.”
“I don’t know what you mean!” you yell. Something snaps inside you. You start hitting things – desks, walls, file cabinets. “How should I survive the quarantine without the Internet? How?!”
The hazmat eyes you sympathetically. He glances at what he was typing, then at you, then says, “I might have something to repair the damage. But you’ll need to sign the NDA and bunch of other things.” He grimaces. “And it’s irreversible. So, if I were you, I’d rather not do it. I’d rather stay out here and try to survive without the Internet, crazy as it seems. At least, typewriters are still around.”
As you two walk along the empty halls, you pass several orange sleeping pods with motionless people. Their eyes are open, their bodies and they are faintly breathing as if in a trance.
“What’s wrong with them?” you whisper.
The hazmat shrugs and repeats, “I’d rather stay out here.”
At last, you come to a cluttered room with a bunch of shelves and papers and shiny small boxes. The gadgets. Finally.
“Are they connected?” You point at them.
“Yes,” the man says. “You’ll get one after you sign this.”
He gives you a stack of papers; there’s something about “semi-realistic experience” and “interlink” and “preserved outer shell.” Lots of fine print, some formulas, but you want to have the gadget, so you skip to the end and sign it.
The policeman hands you the box.
“Not here,” he tells you when you try to open it.
He takes you to the vestibule and points at an empty orange pod. Suddenly, something about the whole thing is off (not to say that having futuristic sleeping pods inside a police station is already weird). But you don’t care; you get inside and unwrap your gadget. It’s a wristband with an eye-shaped screen.
The screen comes to life: now it is a fully rendered human eye. It flutters its fully rendered eyelashes and says, “Well, hello! I’m Preston, and I’m here to guide you in this beautiful world!”
“Beautiful,” you chortle. “Can you dial this number to see if anyone picks up? It’s – “
“I’m not configured to dial numbers.”
“Then can you track an IP?”
“Or to track IPs,” Preston says.
“What are you configured to do?” you ask angrily.
“I can take you to other people.”
“What other people? Quarantine’s in place, remember? No gatherings.”
“That’s not the rule where I’m taking you.” The eye winks at you.
The next moment, you are outside the police station. It’s surprisingly sunny; the colors seem brighter as if in the short time you’ve been inside, they were enhanced in Photoshop.
“Say,” Preston starts, “What kind of parties do you prefer? Cruise ship dinners? Clubs and neon lights? Cozy gatherings?”
“I prefer parties with my phone and laptop,” you say grimly. “That’s the only way to attend a party these days. You know, videoconferencing, group chats, blah blah.” You suddenly notice you’re not wearing your mask or gloves. “Hey! Where did my gear go?”
Preston blinks. “Cozy gatherings it is. Keep walking down the street and turn left at that blue house.”
You shake your head but follow Preston’s directions and find yourself at the door of a sunlit mansion. The murmur of a party is coming from the inside.
“How can they have a party during the quarantine?” you say. “Are they out of their minds?”
A woman in a purple dress with a glass of martini pops out on the porch. She looks faintly familiar. Her left hand has the same wristband with an eye in the middle.
“Hey, you came!”
Before you can say anything, she hugs you and kisses you on both cheeks.
“What the hell?!” You push her away. “If you don’t care about your health, that’s your problem, but I won’t let you compromise mine!”
The woman giggles, “The quarantine’s left outside, dear. Here we are free to meet, hug, talk and live! Live a normal life. Come,” she beckons you inside.
“What’s a normal life, Preston? And what is “out there”?” you ask. The eye closes and doesn’t open even when you flick it.
“You’re so cute,” the woman says. “You’ve signed the papers, like all of us. This is our reality now. Virtual or not, it’s what’s left for us in this world. A gift to those who crave connection.” She looks at you closely. “An irreversible gift.”
A vision of bodies in orange pods flashes through your brain. Her face, open unseeing eyes, is one of them. You wish you’ve read the NDAs. Your insides scream, inept, choiceless. You turn and run into the street, to the blue house, and to the right, towards the police station. It’s buzzing with activity. You try to enter, but the receptionist doesn’t let you; when you tell him about the hazmat man, he looks at you as if he’s never heard the word before.
You’re back in the street, baffled. No one’s wearing a mask or distancing themselves. You dart back to your apartment and find your gadgets intact, but when you try to turn them on, you see that these are only empty shells: no microchips or wires inside. The eye on your wrist finally opens and says, “The Internet’s dead, but it gave way to this beautiful world. Does it even matter if it’s real? With me, you are connected.”
And this is the end.
Thank you for listening.