Jaydren’s eyeballs felt sticky. He rubbed his left eye, gulped down the dregs of his simulated coffee beverage, and sent his notes to Mr. Kalinski before swiping the screen aside. Leaving work, he projected into his status reader, which also updated his changing location as he stepped into the lift and plummeted into the chaotic, twilit streets below. The commuter traffic was particularly awful at this hour, with thousands of bodies pouring out of the glassy office buildings and pushing their way to the bullet trains, shoulder-to-shoulder, each projecting into their readers or scanning their socials. Jaydren tried to fight his way onto a moving walkway, but the crowd was too dense and he had to trudge along with the other pedestrians. Shouldn’t have left at rush hour, he projected. Am total sardine. Land vehicles were only permitted on the megaparkways between cities, and Jaydren lived two minor-municipalities away. There were a handful of hovercrafts in the air highways that wound between the buildings. Their bone-deep vibrations drowned out the noise from the crowd. If Jaydren had been born with better prospects, he could be settling into his own hovercraft right now, but his intelligence was a tad below average, and his health and stamina readings had not been great either.
The sun was almost gone and the city had turned brackish brown, the air smoggy and thick with noise. Vids and text ran along glass facades like giant mechanical worms, streaming from one building to another. Jaydren was jostled and heaved forward: debris on a rolling ocean of bodies. He couldn’t see beyond the backs of people’s heads, but trusted that the crowd was moving in the right direction.
He made it onto the train and fell into a standing pod, strapping himself inside and choosing his point of arrival on the small screen that hovered at eye-level. The pod shifted to the back of the train while empty pods moved forward towards the influx of passengers. Jayden relaxed and focused on his reader. It would be a long ride to his apartment. He switched on his lenses and his vision became saturated with his home platform. He watched a preview for the next episode of Invasion, and his heartbeat quickened with the sudden action: debris flew past him and gunfire exploded in the distance. Then, in a split-second, he was in bed with MAC and Anorita, the show’s main characters, embroiled in a hot huddle of blankets.
“No way,” he exhaled into the darkness, and when the preview faded, his body was tense, his fists balled in anticipation. He would watch the full episode at home with the use of his sensory apps and telewear equipment.
Next, he browsed his socials. His current background was The Meadow, an undulating grassy field that stretched into the distance. At home, with the proper apps, he could infuse sensations like wind and sunshine onto his platform, and even taste and smell, but here on the train he just watched the yellow-green grass billow in muffled stillness. The train’s metallic hum and periodic stop announcements were only just audible. His Friends’ avatars were scattered far across the field, organized into navigable clusters. As he approached a Friend, he could hear their updates and see portals pop up around their heads. He browsed a few portals, but didn’t Engage with anyone until he reached Savi.
Sooo tired, she updated. Can’t wait to relax with my man MAC. Her current location was a shopping district north of the city. A MoonDrops Diner logo hovered next to her avatar, along with the words Savi is enjoying a MoonDrops signature sandwich. She had tinged her hair aquamarine. Her eyes were very dark blue today, and she had the kitty teeth again. Jayden grinned. The sharp little teeth were oddly sexy. Beside her a portal popped up: Savi has invited you to Engage.
Jaydren accepted. “Long day, babe?” he asked.
“You have no idea.” Savi was a Greeter, a step below Jaydren in the professional world. Her intelligence scores were comparable to his own, but her family hadn’t the money for a PhD, so she’d only graduated with a Masters in Service.
She told him about her long day, and he made consolatory noises. “Why don’t you come over to my place tonight,” he offered. “We can watch Invasion together. Have you seen the preview?”
“Are you joking? Of course I’ve seen it! What is with that bedroom scene, right?” Her avatar’s eyes ballooned momentarily to show surprise. “I can come by on the train…” She broke off, and Jaydren waited while she worked something out in the real world. She was back a moment later. “I can’t wait to see you. I miss you.” She sent him a heart icon. “I miss your body,” she added.
Jaydren laughed. “Careful now,” he said, “I’m on the train.”
“I know.” Savi’s avatar gave an exaggerated wink. “Come on. Don’t you miss me?”
“Yeah,” breathed Jaydren, “I definitely do.”
“Tell me how much you miss me.” Her icon puffed the words seductively, and Jaydren pictured the feel of those little teeth on his chest, the hot wetness of her lips. He needed to invest in better sensory apps for his Portable, but they were so expensive.
“Come on, tell me,” she insisted.
“You want me to tell you here?” he asked, though he already knew the answer. Savi had a thing for dirty talk in public places. They had connected randomly through a Friend and had sexted virtually a number of times before they’d actually met in person a few months ago.
“Come on, Jaydren, what do you want to do tonight?” she prompted.
Jaydren was caught up in a convoluted description when his pod suddenly jerked to the front of the train and the doors wooshed open. He cut off mid-sentence and stumbled onto the platform, the lenses depixelating until the world came into focus.
He blinked several times, his face hot. Shuffled forward by the crowd behind, he stepped off the platform and onto the walkway home, which was less crowded out here. The buildings here were all residential cement blocks that stood in uniform rows. Jaydren’s apartment was a studio, perfectly square apart from the toilet/shower nook at the back. The far wall was a pixelated screen that shone to life when he walked in. On the right-hand side, there was a kitchen counter with a sink and a small cooker. There was an armchair pushed to the side of the room where he usually ate his meals. Most of the room was taken up by his Murphy bed, which Jaydren didn’t bother to hide away most mornings since he would just pull it down again when he got home.
He rummaged in his cupboard for a box of Low-carb Noodle Nuggets and shook them into a bowl. He added some water from the tap, and thrust them into the cooker. He found a bottle of simulated wine beverage which he placed on the counter with two glasses. He browsed his socials while he ate, but Savi’s avatar was unresponsive. She was probably Engaging with another Friend, or maybe speaking to someone on the train. He Engaged with a few people he knew loosely and watched some media recommended by his reader. Outside his window, the day had turned the bruised colour of night and he could hear the wind picking up outside and whistling through the spaces between the tall buildings.
Savi showed up an hour later. The first three trains had all been full, so she’d waited for almost twenty minutes before finding an empty pod. She stood in the doorway clutching her purse until Jaydren ushered her inside. Savi’s real hair was a dull bluish colour with dark-brown roots. She had put in a set of false kitty teeth, and she was still wearing her yellow work uniform beneath her black sweater.
“Come sit on the bed,” he said. “I’ve got some wine. I’ve got some snacks too, if you’re hungry.”
“No thanks,” Savi said softly, and Jaydren remembered that she’d been eating a sandwich when they’d Engaged. He climbed onto the bed next to her. It was always awkward in those first moments of real-life contact. To fill the silence, he told her a little about his day at work, and she nodded in her quiet way. His apartment was warm, so she took off her sweater and threw it on his armchair. She accepted a glass of wine and took a deep gulp of the purplish liquid. Jaydren leaned against her on the bed. Her bare arms were paunchy and pale from days spent working indoors. He sipped his wine, thinking about his own appearance and how loosely it matched the avatar that Savi had recently Engaged with. He had a long sallow face pockmarked with acne scars. His ginger hair was overdue for a haircut and an itchy stubble stained his upper lip.
Jaydren stood up and dimmed the lights in his apartment. “Let’s watch Invasion,” he suggested. He finished his wine and poured them both another glass. He also found a bag of Crunchies which they consumed while the episode unfolded around them, the air growing thick with smoke as Anorita’s hovercraft hummed down the landscape.
The episode ended with an explosion of credits, and silence filled the room as Jaydren swept away the telewear. “Wow,” he whispered.
“I loved it,” said Savi. “I can’t believe she saved him. I’ve been waiting for that to happen ever since they met, since that very first day—”
“When MAC found her hiding-out in the pit of his space station? Yeah, me too. And the chase scene—”
“That was epic. That was absolutely amazing.” Savi inhaled deeply, her round face exalted in the shadows of his bedroom. “I’m going to remember this episode for the rest of my life.”
“I know!” Jaydren’s body thrummed with the recent adrenaline rush. His arm was still against Savi’s, and the image of MAC and Anorita in bed together, their muscular bodies writhing against each other, was still warm in his mind. He brushed away the near-empty Crunchies bag and gently took her wine glass to the counter. When he sat back down on the bed, he kissed her tentatively on her salty mouth, tasting of Crunchies’ seasoning. She kissed him back, her lips moving wetly against his. He began to peel off her clothes, and in the dimness her hands found his belt buckle. They didn’t speak, but both were breathing noisily as Jaydren rolled on top of her. He closed his eyes and saw Anorita’s tumbling black hair and her large, cinnamon-coloured breasts, her body arching beneath MAC’s and her muscular legs wrapping around his torso.
Breathing hard, he rolled off Savi. She was sweaty and warm beside him. Jaydren closed his eyes. He drifted near sleep. At some point, he felt Savi sit up and feel around for her clothing. When he opened his eyes, she was pulling on her shoes. “This was fun,” she said.
“Yeah,” Jaydren agreed thickly. “You should stay,” he added, though in truth he didn’t much care either way. He was pulled heavily back towards sleep.
“No, I can’t, but thanks for the offer.” She picked up her sweater from his armchair.
“Ok. Let’s get together later.”
“Ok,” said Savi. She brushed her bluish hair back. Jaydren noticed she had taken out her kitty teeth. “I’ll catch you on my reader,” she said.
She left, and Jaydren rolled back against the pillows, pulling his crumpled blankets to his chin. He could hear the wind again, whistling between the buildings. Somewhere in the depths of sleep, he found himself walking through The Meadow. There were no avatars in the tall, swaying grass. He walked aimlessly beneath a static sky, searching for Anorita, but the meadow was wide and empty, and the wind gusted through it all night long.