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Johannesburg, South Africa
In retrospect it seems absurd that she did not realise earlier. All the signs were clear – so much was known so soon – but nonetheless this day appears to be like any other day in a week like any other week. She is woken by the soft vibrations and dawning rose light of the pillow alarm, which lure her gently from slumber, induced by an 11pm dose of NoxPax that has been calibrated to her age (56), height (1.73 metres) and body weight (69.6 kilograms, somewhat over the frame ideal of 63.5 but still within acceptable parameters). It is 6.30am. The wall shutters glide back to reveal a perfect Highveld spring morning: lazy jacaranda flowers dot the impeccable lawn, swept up as quickly as they fall by the LawnMoaner. Through the indoor-outdoor speakers, the prehensile squawks of hadedas and trilling cries of other less famous birds. The sprinklers have been on overnight and everything is dusted with a light mist, making the garden glisten with the twinkling promise of a new day.
Despite this beatific awakening, she herself does not glisten, nor does she twinkle. She lies in bed a moment longer than is necessary, until the alarm’s delicate but insistent beeping becomes unbearable, and then heaves herself upwards. She is, if not quite savouring, then at least cognisant of the luxuries of being temporarily alone, without a husband or child to greet perfect-faced when their alarms kick in, the first being away on business and the second long gone to a university life that is far more interesting than anything on offer in the incredibly safe, but unashamedly dull, environs of the Fourways Protectorate.
She grabs the handful of tailored supplements, delivered to her bedside by a slightly outdated MyPillMate, and swallows them in one inelegant gulp with a small glass of sparkling water, distilled from the complex’s own borehole spring. Sighing, she leaves the bed and heads to her shower room, where she is efficiently pummelled with a range of scented soaps and oils, designed to optimise skin pH and further resist the slowed but inevitable process of ageing. Her flanks feel firm and smooth, her nipples are high, her neck barely sags at all, her vaginal wall is a muscular marvel, but despite the enviable tightness of her body she sometimes – not often, but sometimes, particularly when her husband is away – feels the lengthy ennui of 56 years of exercising, eating well, staying out of the sun.
Today is one of those days. Today she has awoken with a crushing sense of the pointlessness of it all, the lovely house in the safe compound, the good marriage, the life lived well despite whatever chaos may lurk outside the complex, the suburb, the security perimeter. Today she longs to go outside, to wander the streets, parks and malls of her childhood, bleached by the passage of time into a sepia-tinted nostalgia with barely a hint of the anxious vigilance that characterised life before the protectorates. She dreams of open spaces, wilfully forgetting the panic buttons, the emergency apps, the CCTV cameras, the hurried passage into and out of alarmed cars, the scuttling across roads and speed dial calls to armed security whenever strangers were spotted. She longs, briefly, foolishly, to be part of a swarming mass of people, which would probably be deeply alarming – the smells alone would overwhelm her – and is in any case completely impossible. A woman like her couldn’t walk out the front entrance of the complex without being the target of murderers, kidnappers, pickpockets, fraudsters, rapists, beggars, politicians.
Sighing again, she returns to the MyPillMate and inserts her ring finger into its diagnostic portal. A tiny prick, the barely audible hum of analysis and the machine spits out another handful of pills: SSRIs, psilocybin, MDMA, benzodiazepam, combined in careful doses designed to lift her particular mood. There have been too many days like this recently, too many doses; if she uses the system too often the medical insurance will be alerted and she will be expected to log a series of sessions with an autocounsellor. Better to get herself under control before she risks the family’s Discovery Health bonus, already imperilled by her relative failure to maintain the BMI midpoint.
As always, the pill compounds are direct and fast-acting. By the time she reaches the kitchen her sense of doom is lifting, burned off her like mist off the driveway in the sizzling early morning of a full Joburg summer. The kitchen, alerted to her trajectory by motion sensor beams, brightens up as she enters and emits a welcoming ping to alert her to the readiness of her Hunanese purple tip tea and activated chia-charcoal breakfast smoothie. The day is already feeling better. She taps the wall, calls up her calendar: yoga with Adriene-III, lunch date with a friend in Oslo (the family got in before the Scandinavian border wall was sealed), new episodes of the series she’s watching, hopefully a call with her husband who’s in some complicated time zone that’s stopped them from talking for a few days. She’s been receiving a regular stream of his hello waves and lovemojis, of course, but suspects that these are pre-scheduled, loaded onto his phone by a secretary and arranged to arrive at seemingly random times.
She grabs her tea and breakfast and heads to the garden, or tries to, but the house won’t let her. The kitchen wall stays stubbornly put when she approaches. She tries to key in her override password but the house sends out a sharp alarm, the one it uses for environmental emergencies. Perhaps the UV is particularly vicious today, or maybe the recycling activists from Tanganani or Diepsloot or whatever they call it these days have managed to get some of their gases over the perimeter wall. It won’t be the first time, or the last, but it is annoying; her garden is one of her greatest pleasures, lush and tidy at the same time, all indigenous and low water (other than the jacarandas, of course, but what’s a Joburg home with one?). She knows from experience not to override the house when there’s an environmental threat; she did that once, earned herself a horrible rash from whatever chemicals were floating around out there and had to use an avatar for the rest of the week.
She feels her mood dipping again at the prospect of being stuck indoors, but the meds quickly gee her back up to a nice normal level of cheerfulness. She decides to enjoy her breakfast in the indoor courtyard instead, enjoying the light dappling through the delicious monsters and the thick reek of artfully placed jasmine.
It’s just a day like any day, in a week like any other week. She spends some time listening to podcasts and some time running on the treadmill, the VR headset taking her through the bustling streets of Dubai and along the eastern edge of Lake Como. She immerses herself in her yoga class, holding a crow pose for so long that her wrists cry out for mercy. Her lunch date is auto-cancelled without explanation, which is disappointing, but the Oslo friend has an actual job and often has to attend to it unexpectedly. She considers calling another, less interesting friend, or perhaps her child, but decides against them both: the first will bore her, the second will be bored by her. She eats lunch alone, a salad of chickpeas and complex-grown broccoli, while flicking through selected-for-you vid options: fashion reporting, a historical drama, a reality show set in Kolkota that she’s vaguely enjoyed once or twice. The content is relatable but today she finds it tepid. Kolkota has even worse climate issues than Joburg, so the cast never leave the confines of the city’s elite towers. She keeps flicking until she finds a vintage nature programme and is soothed by grainy images of enormous sea mammals gambolling in pristine water.
The evening call she has scheduled with her husband never comes, and nor does an apology or an excuse. Just… nothing. By 9pm she finds herself clutching a tumbler of rosé, slumped on the sofa that they argued about so much before buying. He felt white would be easily ruined but she’s been vindicated by how well the BetterLeather has stood up to a few years of wear and tear, now soft, yielding and perfectly proportioned to the contours of her body, which after all is the body that spends the most time on it. She stares at the wall for a while, watching some film or other that’s been selected according to her preferences, but she can’t bring herself to finish it, and so she decides to go to bed early. In the bathroom she cleanses, tones, rolls, massages, muslins, exfoliates, serums and moisturises her face, neck and décolletage. She adjusts her NoxPax to allow an extra hour of sleep; she sinks into bed gratefully as around her the room gently tips into warm darkness, promising herself that tomorrow will be better. Tomorrow she’ll speak to her husband, message her child, spend some time in the garden, get on top of the life tasks she’s been avoiding, do more yoga, run for longer.
At 7.30am she is delicately roused by the pillow alarm. Today will be a good day, she says to herself, fluttering her eyelids open to the perfectly pink, apparently womb-like hues that greet her. Today she does not lie around; instead she springs out of bed, gulps down her supplements and allows the shower to attack her at its highest setting, washing away dead skin and doubts, bringing in fragrance, firmness, fortitude. She pulls on a new pair of leggings and a t-shirt, slips her feet into her ergonomic flip flops and marches to the kitchen, where her tea and smoothie are just pinging their readiness as she pads over to the counter.
Her solid determination to feel better falters when the house refuses to let her into the garden, again signalling an environmental problem. She chews her lower lip for a moment, trying to think of whether this ever happened twice in a row, but it must have, surely? Even the Fourways tech isn’t so advanced that it can clean up every potential biohazard in 24 hours. She must have just forgotten, she must have not been paying attention, a claim that is levelled at her frequently by both husband and child, who tend, in its aftermath, to sigh and get back to whatever they were doing.
She eats breakfast in the courtyard again, trying to be soothed by the carefully groomed semi-tropical wildness, quietly talking herself away from the MyPillMate and its too-easy boost. She asks the house to pull up her Close Friends list and see whether anyone is available for lunch (unfortunately none of her CFs are in Fourways or even in Joburg, so there’s no chance of an f2f meeting). A few people have empty slots over the middle of the day so she tells the house to ping them all and accept the first offer, and to schedule a call with her husband for whatever time he can manage. She types out a loving but non-demanding message to her child and hits send. The message sits on unread, which is unusual, but might be a good thing. Perhaps they’re logged into a lecture, finally taking their studies a little more seriously. Perhaps they’re on a vipassana retreat and not checking their phone.
She listens, she runs, she waits for responses. Though she asks the house to double check, no one reacts to her proposed lunch plan. The message to her child remains unread, the call with her husband unscheduled. She watches an episode of her current series. She takes a longer yoga class. She studiously avoids the bedroom, gazes longingly at the garden. By evening time, when none of her messages have been answered, she drinks two glasses of rosé with dinner and feels mildly tipsy. She leaves a voicemail for her husband but deletes it before sending, slightly shocked by the resentment in her tone. She wonders absently whether he’s with another woman, but concludes that if he was he’d make more effort to be in touch. She briefly ponders whether something could have happened to him, but then laughs at herself: his security is top tier, and anyway he flew out from the compound’s own helipad. Perhaps there’s been a network problem, perhaps that still happens in wherever he’s gone on this job. She drifts back to the bedroom in the embrace of this unlikely but comforting thought: he must be having connection issues. Everyone must. It’s not impossible. She undertakes her facial routine with minimal zest then swallows her pill, conveniently forgetting that mixing it with alcohol is bad, and falls asleep in a dusty haze, hugging a pillow, hopeful.
And then it is morning, and she jerks awake moments after the alarm begins to activate, filled with unease but unsure why. She sits up, takes her supplements and asks the house to read back her messages. But there are none. Nothing from husband, nothing from child, nothing from friends, no new appointments, no requests, nothing. Her calendar for the week is uncannily and absolutely empty of anything that hasn’t been programmed. She sits on the edge of the bed for a moment, shaking her head slightly, staring at her wriggling toes, trying to dodge the feeling that this isn’t normal, that this isn’t her life, that her life is full. She gets up unsteadily, wanders to the bathroom, is showered, wanders to the kitchen, is fed, wanders towards the garden – and the front wall slides open, the house allowing her out. The rush of morning air is like a jet of warm water on her face. She jerks upright and awake and scurries outside, wriggling her toes in the damp, softly manicured kikuyu. The sun, blazing already, beats down on her uplifted face. Everything smells wonderful. And everything is so…quiet. It takes her a moment to realise that she can’t hear anything. No kids getting yelled at or steered towards school buses, no smooth hum of external transports arriving, no domestic workers being buzzed through security scans, no couples bickering, no dogs, nothing. It’s as if the sounds of the suburbs have been simply switched off. There is birdsong, and wind whipping through trees, but nothing else, not even the beeping of gate warnings. The compound sounds unpeopled, abandoned to the morning sun. It is almost blissful. She stands on tiptoe, tries to peer over her wall, but she isn’t tall enough, catching just a glimpse of an empty workers’ transport that really shouldn’t be parked sidelong in the lane like that.
She stands in the garden for a while, alert now, nerves zinging, trying to catch a sound of life in between the echoing silences, but there is only the grass between her toes, the sun on her face, the birds, the dew, the trees’ dappled shadows. Her breath comes tight in her throat and she backs away, back inside, muttering a ragged order at the house as the wall glides shut. She stumbles to the sofa, sits heavily, inhaling, exhaling, blinking, thinking.
Messages, she asks the house? No messages.
She sags backwards, unsure of what to do, thinking for a moment of the soft temptations of the MyPillMate. But instead she tells the house to switch to her husband’s profile and turn the news on.
On Fox, two anchor avatars, a blonde male and a Hispanic female, speak in calming tones under a blinking text box that says ‘This programme is a repeat’. A banner message unscrolls beneath them. It takes her a moment to read it, then read it again, and another to understand it. The anchors continue their staged conversation – ‘never seen anything like it, the scale is unprecedented’ – while the images behind them roll through what seems like footage of…can those be people? People’s bodies, slumped across streets and malls and highways and airports? She reads the scrolling message again, tunes back into the anchors saying something about responsibility, something about spread, something about airborne. She waves her hand at the wall and the screen vanishes.
Messages, she asks the house? No, no messages.
Slowly she stands, looking blankly around the room and its objects, familiar as her own hands. Sofa, lampshade, carpet, coffee table, all selected for taste and comfort. Nothing bad gets in here unless she emits it herself; nothing of herself gets out. She is safe here – so safe, the safest person. She is almost part of the house. Her head feels strange, dizzy perhaps, or something like dizzy that she doesn’t have a word for. She blinks, focuses her eyes on the vivid green of the lawn, the television’s text repeating in her head. She whispers it aloud, running it over and over until the words blur into each other and become meaningless, just sounds now, like the hum of the house, the calls of the birds, the wind. The garden’s wild green swims in front her eyes and her breath comes faster.
Abruptly she turns and staggers back to the bedroom. The small machine clicks on as she shoves her trembling finger inside it: the buzz, the prick, the whirr as her personal pills are disgorged. She lifts them shaking to her mouth – but no, no swallowing now, no warm rush of calm and goodwill. She drops the pills on the table, stares distractedly around the room, looking for something else. The closet: she reaches for her running shoes, sliding them on and tying them up automatically, muscle memory moving her fingers. She stands on her treacherous legs but they do not drop out from under her: they move her forward, out of the bedroom, down the hallway, past the kitchen and living room, past the gym, the second and third bathrooms, the courtyard, her child’s room, the extra bedrooms, the games room, the office, all pristine and inviting in their neutral tones and clean air. She does not stop or look around; she keeps her eyes forward and her fists clenched, aiming herself at the front door, trying to imagine herself as an arrow, a wobbly thing that will not be shifted from its path.
She tells the house to open up and it does, seamlessly. There is nothing threatening outside. The air is fine, the sun is friendly. Outside is outside, no beeps or warnings. But her shoulders are pulled tightly forward, fists still clenched, perfect fingernails cutting small moons into her palms. She inhales deeply through pursed lips then slowly exhales, forcing her shoulders down, forcing her hands to open, forcing her body to loosen, stilling the papery quivers than run up and down her thighs. She turns back for a moment, thinking of her phone, but it is abandoned somewhere in the house like her pills have been abandoned, like the leftover bits of skin that she’s shed in every one of those rooms, swiftly hoovered up by the house’s self-cleaning mechanisms; like an oven, like a vagina.
She shakes her head as if to shake thoughts out of her ears and steps outside. The lane is as it always is, tidy and restful. Outside a neighbour’s house something almost catches her eye, something sagging on the doorstep, but she looks away quickly and resolutely, raising her gaze to the level of the trees, which sway charmingly in a slight morning gust. She walks down the lane, eyes lifted, not looking down, not looking to the side, stepping where she needs to step, avoiding all obstacles. The day is heating up and the dry air is warm on the skin of her arms. She walks through the compound, never looking around, bypassing the skewed buses and other things, ignoring the gentle beeps of her neighbours’ houses. At times her feet falter and she panics momentarily that they will let her down, that they will stop walking, turn around and steer her back to the left-behind house, past all the things she has so far managed not to look at. But her feet do not fail her, her eyes do not fail her, and she moves stumblingly down the compound’s central avenue, veering between small, unimaginable obstacles.
And then she is at the main gate, sealed shut as always. Metres high, impenetrable, the unwavering border of her daily life. Her gaze flicks briefly around but there is nothing here, there is no one here. She moves forward, dragging her feet, dragging her body up the security wall. She inserts her finger into the reader, widens her dry eyes at the iris monitor, feels the tiny prick of the DNA scan. The info screen flashes a warning: Dear Neighbour, Please Do Not Exit The Compound Without Appropriate Armed Support. For a moment she feels like she might vomit – jars of bile from her stomach suddenly bubbling up into a mouth full of lava – but she chokes it back, leans forward and keys in her override code. The screen flashes a second warning – The Fourways Protectorate Safety Guarantees Are Not Valid Outside The Main Gate Unless Appropriate Armed Support Has Been Engaged – and she taps ‘Accept’. The gate slides open, then the second gate behind it, silently, smoothly.
The air is still, no sound, no motion. She realises she has been holding her breath, and lets it rush it out with a ragged sigh that almost turns into a sob. On gelatine legs she walks forward. Outside. Alone. Finally outside, alone, and safe. She shakes her hair around her shoulders and steps out into the brave new world.