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Nichol was a copy-paster. That wasn’t his official job title, but Content Editor didn’t really describe his activities: taking a news story, tweaking it until no more than seventy-two percent of the original material remained, then reposting it. Seventy-two percent was the guideline, and Nichol had a knack of hitting it.
He worked from home, a fifth floor flat on the banks of the Clyde. Most people, given that view, would have watched the shipyard museum – which simulated a ship’s launch every thirty minutes, complete with a soaking splash of water for the onlookers – but Nichol focused only on the clock in the corner of his laptop screen. He was always waiting for the minute he could log-off and take his break. The moment he could make his way out to the back garden and the Watercooler.
The morning he met Jodie, he’d been working on an article about the increased numbers of remote workers returning to centralised offices since the geomagnetic storm that passed through Asia. Most of it was statistics. Still, he’d taken out some filler and added a section on the rising popularity of the Watercooler in this country. It might not get past his editor – it was more or less an advert – but he told himself that it was useful for balance against the Asian statistics.
At ten-thirty he clicked on the break tab. The fifteen minutes immediately started counting down. He was straight out of the door, into the lift and out to the back garden. He’d had to petition the building Resident’s Board for months to get his Cooler installed but he’d noticed, in the year or so since, that a further five of them had arrived without the smallest whisper of complaint.
It was a metal unit, set against the back wall. Tangled weeds clutched at the base of it but could find no purchase against the sleek surface. His was a tasteful light grey, the one next to it was a garish green. Only deep and wide enough for one person to stand inside – the standard model – it was suitable for the social floor of the Virtual Office. Not the relaxation level where avatars stretched out into yoga poses or the exercise level where users could play football or tennis. If Nichol swung a leg or an arm in his Cooler then he’d stub or stave.
“Welcome, Nicky,” the Automated Voice Actor said as he entered. He’d not bothered to name her, beyond her acronym of Ava, and she retorted by not accepting Nichol as a name. It was hard to see the rechristening as anything other than spiteful, even if it was determined only by code. He’d managed to get his avatar’s name accepted as Nicholson, which was closer at least.
“Social level,” he said, pulling on the headset and connecting the sensor pads to his thighs and wrists. Within seconds, he was in the stark brightness of the Virtual Office. It always took a moment to adjust from the darkness of the Cooler, still visible at the periphery of the headset, to focus on the swarm of avatars around the pale-blue towers. There were twelve towers, of differing heights, with bubbles rising through them. Some had animated fishes or coral. If you had a platinum membership, you could swim your avatar down into the towers to be looked at by the gathered gawkers.
Jodie was the third person he spoke with. The first was a writer, male, from Idaho. He started telling Nichol about the plot for his novel – set in a dystopian future – so was waved away. Then came a slender, blonde avatar who worked in Human Resources for a bank. Her voice gave away her actual age, though. The avatar had smoothed at least two decades off the real thing. Sweeping her aside seemed harsh, but Nichol only had fifteen minutes.
You could access a ‘properties’ menu for each avatar. Jodie’s said that she was five-foot-four with brown hair and blue eyes. Of course, this didn’t have the wee blue tick of verification – they so rarely did. The menu made no mention of the tattoos: sleeve-length across both arms and even across one of her cheeks. Tribal style, with curved lines narrowing to thin points.
“I like your tattoos,” Nichol said, approaching her.
“They’re not tattoos,” she replied, quickly. Her accent was from the North of England. The guttural note to it was pleasant after the polished RP inflection of Ava.
“Sorry, I – “
Nichol paused. If he made a noise, any noise, it would be picked up by the microphone in the headset.
“The Watercooler doesn’t have an option for scars,” she spoke first.
“They seem to have an option for everything.”
“Does that freak you out?” she asked.
“No, I – ” Nichol struggled. “Are the tattoos just there to represent the scars then?”
“They’re placeholders, yes.”
“Even the one on your cheek?”
Her avatar nodded.
“And the ones on your arm – ?”
“They’re not what you might think,” she said. “But if I explain then you have to promise not to wave me away.”
“Ok.” Nichol touched a hand to his headset. A digital clock flashed up – he had four minutes left. “I have time.”
“The first was when I was fifteen. I had a cat – Aldous – who used to run lengths of the hallway by night and arcs of the cul-de-sac by day. He was only two years old when he was killed. It was a murky day and I think he got confused and ran a length instead of an arc. He ended up on the main road.”
“I was inconsolable. But I had this half-moon scar, at the base of the index finger on my left hand. He’d given me it as a kitten. So I opened it back up, deepened the scar if you like, to remind me of him.”
“As a memorial?” Nichol asked.
Nichol thought about this. It made sense to him. More than that, though, there was an earnest note to her voice that told that she wanted it to make sense to him. “I understand,” he said. “Do you have time to tell me about the others?”
“I only have two minutes twenty seconds left.”
Nichol touched his headset. He was about to go into negative time. There was a thirty second period of grace, then his company started docking wages.
“Can we meet again, then?” he asked.
“I’m Jodie,” she smiled, holding out her hand. “Although you probably already knew that.”
“Nichol,” he replied, shaking hands with the chill, dark inch of emptiness in the Cooler.
The next day, Jodie was waiting for him over by the Newswall. If Nichol had wished – if he had the patience for waving through football scandals and celebrity scores – he probably could have found one of his own stories here. Or a version of one, at least.
“Morning,” he said to Jodie.
“None of them were self-harm,” she said, with the slightest nod of greeting. “I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. They were all either accidental or decorative. I’ve never cut to kill myself.”
“I wanted you to know.”
There were activities in the Virtual Office designed to remove the awkward moments. The Newswall, sitcom trailers, two player games. Ignoring them all, Nichol concentrated on the silence.
“Tell me about the others,” he said.
“On the inside of my right arm, just below the elbow, I have two fir trees with a long shadow. It was an art project, at university. Fabric design. Afterwards, I had a metal version of it made up and heated it on the hob.”
“Must have hurt?”
“You need to be careful of the shock. Make sure your body doesn’t take over.”
Nichol nodded. He imagined metal being placed against white skin. A hiss, then the smell of singed hair. The flesh would depress slightly and then, as the metal was lifted, would rise as a blister. With reddened edges that would spread to the surrounding skin like an invading army being charted on a map.
“What else?” Nichol asked.
“In my mid-twenties I got in a car accident. A piece of metal sliced across my abdomen. It left a long, straight scar. At first I thought it was just a useful reminder about mortality and the need to be a careful driver, but it also ended up losing me a man – ”
“A boyfriend? Husband?”
“Just a man.”
Nichol watched Jodie carefully. The Watercooler didn’t give the chance to study facial expressions, but you could tell a lot from someone’s stance. From how their avatar held themselves.
“It was our fourth date,” Jodie said. “And I invited him back to mine. As we undressed, he froze. He was looking at the scar from the car crash and there was anger on his face. Like a proper scowl. He thought it was a caesarean scar.”
“And he left?”
She nodded. “He accused me of hiding my baggage and then walked out.”
“He was a dickhead, then.”
Nichol wanted to ask other questions. Simpler and, on the face of it, less intimate. What age she was. Where she lived. What she did for a living. The kind of questions that made up seventy-two percent of the small talk in this place. He’d never had any trouble asking them before.
“Do you have any scars, Nichol?” Jodie asked.
He thought for a moment. “I have one on my knee. Just ordinary scar tissue. And maybe the shadow of a burn mark on the palm of my right hand.”
“You might be the only person, ever, who hasn’t replied to that question by saying ‘I have psychological scars, yes’.”
He laughed. “Is it too late to change my answer?”
“Please don’t.” There was a smile in her voice, but not on the face of her avatar.
Nichol touched a hand to his headset. He still had time. He wanted to ask if her brown hair was really cut into that short bob, whether her neck was really as slender. Whether her eyes were actually that Pacific Ocean blue.
“What about the scar on your cheek?” he asked instead.
She shrugged. “After the death of my brother I tracked the trail of the first tear with the point of a knife.”
There were follow-up questions to that, but Nichol didn’t ask them. The why was obvious: it had been a way of marking the grief, of remembering that first sharp opening of it.
“What was his name?” Nichol asked.
She didn’t speak much after that. Instead she asked him all the questions he longed to ask – where he lived, what he did, whether he had a partner. In response to the last of these, Nichol finally worked up the courage to echo the question back to her.
“Not since Lucas,” she said.
Over the next few days, Nichol found that the twenty-eight percent of the articles that he wasn’t copy-pasting began to hold traces of his conversations with Jodie. The story about riots in Belarus opened with an image of the sun rising behind two fir trees, casting a long shadow, and the piece about the burst dam in Columbia identified the cause as a hairline crack that “trailed down the concrete like the passage of a single tear down a cheek”.
He stitched them in carefully, looking for the joins, the edges. On the screen, he would seek them out and run his fingertip along the phrases, ignoring the unblemished words on either side. He wanted them to be noticeable – to himself, to her – but also part of the whole. He spent hours smoothing them, until they blended in with the story, without ever covering them over entirely.
“The man who thought your scar was a caesarean,” he said to Jodie, during a lunch break. “Were you expecting him to pass a tender hand over it? Or just a gentle word? What was the reaction you were hoping for?”
She paused, considering. “Just a direct question.”
“So, if he asked you how you got it?”
“Yes,” she sighed. Shallowly, but it was picked up by her microphone. “He wasn’t the love of my life, Nichol, but I’d hoped there was more of a connection than that.”
“Is that why – ” he rethought his phrasing. “Did you choose to show him because you’d started to trust him?”
“Show him my scars, you mean?”
“Partly. But also because I wanted to sleep with him.”
Nichol felt his face flushing. In the darkness of the Cooler. It was at times like these that he was grateful for the even blankness of the avatar’s face. He looked off to his left, towards the Gameswall. A male avatar was gobbling an air-sandwich in a way that made Nichol worry about crumbs in the bottom of his Cooler. It could attract rats.
“After he left,” Jodie said. “I cut myself just below my left breast. Above the scar from the car crash. If I’d continued to think about him, if I’d wondered about what I could have done differently or how I could have prepared him for the scar, then I would have opened it up again. Worried at the edges of it. As it was, though, I left it. It was no more than a notch. And it faded and was lost against the scar tissue below.”
“How many have faded like that?” Nichol asked.
She shrugged. “Who counts the scratches and scrapes.”
It was a fortnight after their first meeting that Nichol got the story about the Nicaraguan miners. Some were trapped for days, others subjected to blasts of boiling, pressurized steam as the walls collapsed around them. The ‘lucky’ ones – disfigured rather than dead – were to have any medical bills covered by the state. Including reconstructive surgery.
Filling in the twenty-eight percent of original material should have been a joy. Jodie’s scars should have been a seam across the surface. But Nichol couldn’t get the vertical strokes on her clavicle – carved in memory of a cousin killed on duty in Khartoum – to marry with the face of a miner whose cheekbone had collapsed and jaw slumped towards his neck. He wrote about, and then deleted, the waved line across the top of her thigh – marked after her first scuba dive – because it didn’t fit with the hacking dismemberments of falling scaffolds and timbers. No matter what he tried, he couldn’t knit Jodie into the story.
“Is work not going well?” she asked, during their afternoon break. “You’re quiet.”
“I can’t meet my quota. Can’t find the words.”
“Can I help?”
He shook his head.
“Shall I tell you about my scars, then?” she asked.
“That definitely wouldn’t help.”
It was their shortest conversation yet. And through it, Nichol swallowed – again and again – an urge to ask whether they could meet. In person. Away from the Watercooler. Whether he could sit – or lie – next to her and trace her scars with his fingertip.
“I’ll just do what I did before,” he said, eventually. “And fill in the story with the off-cuts from the others. Or sneak in lyrics or film quotes for the other copy-pasters to find.”
“Yes,” she said.
“Is that what you’d do?”
“If it helps.”
He hadn’t found out where she lived or what she did. Or whether Jodie was even her real name. He had only found out about her scars. Still, Nichol filed his miners story and moved on. Since he seemed to be unable to question her outright, maybe he could glean details by getting her to suggest a location for an unlikely lottery win in the North of England or a vocation for a woman mauled by a bull in Pamplona.
He made his way down to the Cooler. Perhaps, he was thinking, he could ask her where she had been when Lucas died or whether she had to take time off work to go scuba diving. Maybe he could even do some good old-fashioned research – get in touch with the team at the Watercooler and try to convince them to trace the avatar back to the real person. They must hold records of their users.
Nichol smiled into the darkness of the Cooler. His avatar, in the Virtual Office, moved forwards. Towards a clutch of avatars over at the Newswall. They moved jerkily, making him wonder if the real people were crashing against the walls of their individual Coolers, denting the sides. What had got them so panicked? He felt his smile drain away. His avatar’s face would have registered no change, although his stride quickened.
“What’s happened?” he asked someone on the fringes.
The Watercooler added ten thousand new users every day. One in three people had tried it. Actual offices were beginning to install Coolers because their workers preferred it to the break room or the canteen or the teacher’s lounge or –
But this user – the one who’d collapsed – was Jodie. Nichol knew. The avatars were gathered around the same spot she normally waited. And there was no sign of her, standing off to one side. A conviction – a dread – rose from his stomach, strengthening its grip.
He moved into the crowd. He couldn’t push past – would only be elbowing the sides of his own Cooler – so he had to duck down and peer around to see. Through a thicket of avatar legs he saw her. She was slumped, but with her back twisted in mid-air, so that her head nestled near her armpit. A strange contortion, defying gravity. Like a snapshot of the moment someone slips or that breathless beat before someone, falling, hits the ground. But she hung there. Her shoulder a couple of feet from the floor. Her face the same smooth smiling mask as always.
“Jodie!” Nichol called.
She did not answer.
“Do you know her?” someone asked. Avatars turned towards him. “Can you go to her home, check she’s ok?”
“I don’t – ” he stuttered. “I can’t – ”
“Someone should call the moderator.”
“It might just be a glitch,” another voice said.
“Or a sensor pad left on.”
“Try not to worry.”
A path had opened for Nichol to move forward. He knelt by the side of her. He desperately wanted to take the weight of her shoulder, to ease her down to the ground. When he tried to make contact, though, his fingers only brushed the inside wall of his Cooler.
All he could do, then, was wait. For a moderator.Their report would bring no doctor, no ambulance. At least, not in the Virtual Office. There would be no word about whether one of her tattoos had opened or if the ink was pooling in the bottom of her Cooler. He would never know what she did or where she lived. Where she was found. He would never trace her scars with his fingertips. Instead, all he could do was kneel there. Cradling the emptiness where her shoulder should be.
About Liam Murray Bell
Liam Murray Bell is author of two novels: So It Is, shortlisted for Scottish Book of the Year 2013, and The Busker. He lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Stirling.