Second Skin


This is the beginning of the novel that I began for NaNoWriMo. I did not, of course, finish it – more because the whole notion of forced writing is antithetical to my process. I thought it would be a good exercise, sort of like the 48 Hour Film Project, which I do find to be a great challenge, however, in this case at about the halfway point, I ceased to like the story I was writing. I still like the concept, a future in which there can be no human touch…

Videos may return soon…

Chapter 1

She imagined that she could see the origination point of the first drop of water, many, many meters up in the sky. It was born, with all of the torment that act generally entails, squeezing itself out of a pregnant cloud, one of a litter of billions. It reached adolescence in free fall, kept apart from its peers by a thin cushion of air. Above her head, it ripened into old age and its life came to an end, as all things do, in a violently merry splash upon her cheek. The first teardrop. The sky was crying, releasing its woe and sorrow on the world in a way that she hoped was profoundly satisfying.

In the moments before its mates caught up with it, she raised a finger to her cheek, seeking the chill and wetness of the single drop. Her gloved hand came away empty, the singular sensation obliterated by the noisy voices of those leading the downpour.

Umbrellas shot up around her as she stood and watched those eager to escape the sudden curtain of rain that had been predicted all day. She wanted to feel the water on more than her face, she longed to remove her gloves and fling them into the street and see how much rain she could hold. It was a game she had imagined playing as a child, it included friends and a brother or sister who would race through the front yard with her, grabbing handfuls of summer rain and squealing in delight. It would run down her legs and be absorbed by her hair and stream into her eyes. Pretending in the shower was never quite enough – real rain must feel different than carbon-filtered tap water. Real rain would have the weight of an unfinished life and a soul that hinted at freedom. Things she couldn’t articulate as a child, but could only feel in some deep instinctual language that was inherently unshareable.

However, Isobel did not have any siblings or friends to speak of, and the thin layer of biosensitive fabric of one form or another that had covered her body since moments after birth, was waterproof. Non-flammable, puncture resistant, and thermally insulated, the suit provided the wearer with the ultimate in protection from today’s environmental and biological threats. At least that’s what the adverts touted. Without a SecondSkinn® you were what amounted to a leper, and so even as she stood, umbrella-less, inviting all soggy challenges, the futility of it eventually pushed her eyes back earthward, onto the gray streets and grim walks of reality.

A throng of people pressed toward the entrance of the subtram and funneled down into the earth. Isobel stepped carefully, making sure to pause for the split-second necessary to allow the scanners to properly identify her and process her payment. Several meters away an alarm sounded, admonishing an impatient person who hadn’t allowed enough time for their body scan. Far worse would be the sirens which would blare and the chaos which would ensue if anyone’s scan revealed any prohibited bio-organisms. Fear of Infection was constant, and even false positives due to an irregular metabolism or perhaps machine error would mean pandemonium, with dozens, if not hundreds injured from the mass stampede away from the lowly transgressor.

Isobel had had a neighbor who’d set off the scan siren one day as he entered the condo quarters. He was a thin old man, whose saggy trousers and oversized overblouse hinted at the more substantial form he used to inhabit. As far as Isobel could tell he practiced some sort of trade, bot repair or tram inspection maybe, something that required tools and left a greasy residue under the finger pads of his gloves. That evening, she had seen him approaching the building from down the walk. He’d nodded politely and inclined his head indicating that she should enter first. As he passed the threshold, even before the door could swish closed behind him, Isobel’s skull began to reverberate as the siren pierced the thin air of the foyer. She turned, in slow motion, too disoriented to be afraid and saw the man’s eyes close. He pulled a rag from his pocket and wiped his brow, as he looked up his eyes met hers. Deep in their pools she saw nothing but defeat.

A security guard grabbed her by the arm and slung her away while another one produced a face mask made of a clear gel-like substance. The mask attached over her nose and mouth and she had the sensation of being smothered as it stretched to spread from ear to ear. In actuality she could breathe through it remarkably well – purified air, even more pure than what the building ventilation system spewed out. Somehow, though the purity she inhaled didn’t agree with her and she bent over in a coughing fit as her chest started to burn. Clawing at her face trying to remove the mask was fruitless, and she slid to the ground taking slow shallow breaths until the dizziness passed.

Within moments the scourge team arrived, looking like ninjas in their black Skinns, with masks like the one Isobel wore, except theirs encompassed the head entirely. The team restrained the old man and placed him on a hover-gurney which slid out into the darkness. The whole thing had taken 45 seconds tops, and the only sound in the space was the quiet swish of the doors closing.

Isobel had never seen the man again. There was no mention of him in the newsfeeds, no clue as to what offense he had made, what Infection, if any, he had been diagnosed with, or what treatment, if any, he was to receive. She was skeptical of the autoscan diagnoses, unwilling to rely on algorithmic analysis to determine the life of a human being. Perhaps she was in the minority. Official word was that all citizens would receive the best medical care possible, and that their stay during restricted hospitalization would be pleasant – a home away from home, for the rest of their lives, which were fortunately very short. No visitors were allowed, no family, no friends, the risk being too great. Of course no one in their right mind would want to chance exposure, even for the closest lover or dearest parent. Quarantine was all-encompassing, the Infected were not even allowed to communicate virtually, as studies done regarding nanovirus transmission through network lines were as yet inconclusive. Entering a nest, sending an email or instant message were prohibited. Phone calls were only permitted from land lines, but the switching system was centuries old and completely unreliable. Land line companies like Western Union were often closed without notice due to infrastructure problems, which usually took weeks to repair. When they were available, lines were long and a limit of 3 minutes was placed on each conversation.

“How are you holding up?”
“Not bad, how are the kids doing?”
“They’re doing really well, they miss you.”
“I miss them too, well, tell them I love them, and I think of them every day.”
“How do you feel?”
“As well as can be expected…”

Isobel imagined the mini-conversations that must go on between parted families. As weeks and months progressed with no hope of reunion, faces that used to endure the long lines would no doubt lose patience with the waiting, the uncertainty as to whether the phone lines would still be functioning when it was their turn at the phone. The expense of renting time to make abbreviated small-talk. More common were the families that buried the memory of their loved one, abandoned the pretense, boxed away their clothes and pictures and simply went on. Shame was part of it – few wanted to admit they were related to an Infectee. But for those who braved the lines religiously, refusing to let go, one day the phone would just go unanswered. Later, if they happened to try again, another voice would tell them there was no one there by that name. No, their records did not indicate where he went. No, they were not sure if he was coming back.

Isobel’s heart began to ache as she considered the heartbreak. Her empathic sensitivity was keen, if not overactive, and if she did not watch herself, this sadness could persist the rest of the day. In the subtram station, the alarm quickly silenced, and people pushed and prodded themselves forward onto the platform, and onto the the tram. One less obstacle between the teeming streets and serene sanctity of home.

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