Transmission: A story from Infectious Futures

29 January 2018
Written by
Tim Maughan

In 2015, we commissioned six stories about a future facing up to the challenge of antibiotic resistance called Infectious Futures: Stories of the post-antibiotic apocalypse as part of a much larger effort to publicise, educate, and enrich the conversation around the subject. These stories, originally in print form, will be uploaded as blogs, one at a time for the next 6 months into an online collection. Enjoy! 

Transmission

Transmission Infectious Diseases
THE LINES snake out of the station and up Electric Avenue, so that everybody has to step over the bodies in the street, not knowing if they’re dead or just sleeping, and whether that’s urine or sick or blood that’s matted their cardboard mattresses to the pavement. Mia’s been here since before eight, easily, and the itch is getting to her, all around her neck and up past her ears to her scalp as she watches people pass – God knows what they might be carrying – but she can’t scratch it because even with her gloves on she might break the 2nd Skin. Instead  she clenches her teeth behind the breather, inhales that stale smell of rubber and the sickly, chemically menthol-perfumed antiseptic spray she used to wash it out this morning, and waits, wishing she was indoors. Always wishing she was indoors.

 

It’s stupid hot today, of course. Too stupid hot to be stood around on Electric Avenue in a 2ndSkin stepping over might-be-dead homeless guys and waiting for a train, when she could be sat inside in front of an electric fan, drinking liquid ibuprofen and hoping it doesn’t make her too constipated. She laughs silently to herself. Last day she’ll have to worry about that. 

They’re splitting the lines into two at the bottom of the stairs. She gets pulled out into the second, much faster line straight away, before anybody even asks to see her paperwork, just cos she’s wearing the 2ndSkin and breather. Her line’s faster because, well, it’s Brixton. Not many people round here with green clearance and money for fresh skins. Correction: not many people round here with green clearance and money for fresh skins who need to leave the house regularly. Plenty round here with money, but they all got jobs where they work from home, get their kids homeschooled by bots and MOOCs, have their food delivered, and can probably print most other stuff they need.

She remembers her time in the other line, trudging out to the Amazon warehouse in Slough, where they’d strap her into a bulky hazmat suit before they’d let her fulfil any orders for the nice, clean homeworkers. Even though she had legit green status. Fully legit. Nervously, with gloved fingers, she grasps the medical clearance card in her hoody pocket.

She’s never got her head round the hypocritical logic of the checkpoints. Over in the other line the commuters are being made to take off their flimsy, greying paper face-masks, along with anything else they’ve wrapped around their heads, hoping for protection: scarves, bandages. This one guy is wearing some cracked old plastic swimming goggles. Off it all comes, just so the checkpoint cameras can have a look at their faces, and the NHS networks can track where everyone goes and can build their pretty, precious, pointless infection-spread models.

At the same time, here in her quick-moving queue, everyone is just getting waved through, even though their faces are completely unscannable, utterly hidden from any human or machine sight by the hermetically sealed 2ndSkin and the breather. Taking them off outside of home, breaking the seal – especially down here in this germ-pit of a tube station – would defeat the point of wearing them in the first place, so wearing one is enough that the rules do not to apply to you. Plus of course, anyone who can afford them just has to be clean anyway.

Butterflies in her stomach. She fumbles the green clearance card out of her pocket, nearly drops it, holds it up, but the TFL worker on the checkpoint barely glances at it through the scuffed plexiglass of his hazmat suit as he waves her through.

Stockwell, 9.35 am

The ride to Stockwell from Brixton used to take eight minutes, tops, her mum always tells her. Apparently it was still that quick when she was a kid. This morning it’s been at least half an hour, the train constantly stopping and starting in the tunnel, automated voices telling them it’s because of congestion on the line ahead. Transport for London apologises for delays to your journey, this is due to NHS medical safety checkpoints. For everyone’s benefit always remember to carry your medical clearance card. Help Transport for London avoid infection snarl. Travelling without proper medical status paperwork is a crime.

The announcements seem extra clinical, extra loud in the motionless surreality of the near-empty green clearance carriage. No bodies to soak up the sound. The only passengers in here are half a dozen 2ndSkin wearers, sitting silently like posed, faceless mannequins in this season’s designer fashions, unseen eyes gazing at tablets and phones sealed airtight in ziplock bags.

Mia has no screen to stare at, no notifications to check. Her phone stays in her pocket, naked and unprotected. Instead she sees her kitchen at home, the testing kit on the table, the envelope full of documents, the money, Paul sobbing quietly in his hazmat suit, his gloved hand in hers. She hears herself calming him down; he wants to rip the suit off, to be naked with her.

—Are you sure you really want to do this?

*nodding*

—We always said we would, right? When the time came?

At Stockwell the doors slide open; she steps on to the platform. The other carriages, amber and red, remain closed until the green-and-cleared have disembarked. Dishevelled figures in paper face-masks and scarves, sardined inside, stare out. She glances away, vague, confused, guilty.

The tunnel leading to the Northern Line platform is full of people. Her first skin crawls. More checkpoints, more bullshit. Above her head a tiny quadcopter drone buzzes, spraying the crowd with paranoid antiseptic mist.—We always said we would, right? When the time came?

She feels a tear she can’t wipe away seep between two skins.

Elephant & Castle, 10.15 am

All this stopping/starting: she knows something’s up, that the train shouldn’t be waiting here this long. 

The doors slide open again. This time two cops, all black armoured hazmat suits and SA–80 assault rifles, are standing on the platform. From somewhere behind them come muffled screams, sobbing. They order everyone out of the carriage in crackly amplified voices, saying nothing more than there’s a problem with the train. 

Waiting on the platform, she glances into the next carriage – amber clearance – just as the doors are closing. She sees a body splayed out on the floor, face down in a slowly growing pool of dark liquid.

Then the train, empty but for its lone passenger, slides away.

When the next one comes, God knows how many minutes later, it’s packed. The doors in front of her slide open: red clearance. One of the cops tells her and the three other 2ndSkin-wearers she’s been waiting with to get on. Indignant, outraged protest from blank mannequin faces. Arguing. Shoving. Just get on and shut up. Mia steps into the carriage, almost losing her balance as the cop pushes a complainer in. He’s not happy, hammering at the now-closed doors. The women he’s with are sobbing, as through smeared windows the platform slips away.

Mia keeps her head down, trying to ignore the gazes of the amber-cleared commuters, most of their eyes still visible through whatever they’ve wrapped round and over their heads: torn surgical masks, headscarves, baseball caps, hoods. Even though she knows they can’t see her face, she can feel their eyes. She grasps a handrail that makes her hand burn and itch, even through her gloves. She tries not to imagine whose hands have been there before, as she steadies herself against the train’s shuddering.

Two more stops just two more stops.

London Bridge, 10.50 am

Mia emerges into daylight, squinting through the thin 2ndSkin membrane, and fights the urge to rip off the breather and taste the air. From here the Shard doesn’t so much dominate the skyline as consume it, like a giant blade has slit open the sky to reveal secret steel and glass scaffolding holding reality together.

She gets in easier and quicker than she feared. There are no lines, nobody queuing to leave or enter this hermetically sealed vertical city-within-a-city. The security here, in ornate uniforms, at least look at her clearance card and resident’s pass, but they say nothing, not once questioning her authenticity. Instead they smile and motion for her to step through the body scanner. She’s not carrying the kind of weapons it’s looking for, and triggers nothing but green lights and soft chimes, and the guards smile again, call her by a name that isn’t hers, and wish her a good day. 

Through the revolving airlock and into the pristine, infection-free foyer. A sterile oasis within the city of plagues. Apart from a few residents leaving or entering, nobody wears a 2ndSkin here, safe to dress as they wish in their sanitised bubble world. Mia keeps hers on, avoiding uncaring gazes again, guilt and fear replaced this time by anger and hatred.

By the lifts she waits, awkward and self-conscious, until she can have a car to herself. She thumbs the button for the restaurant and shops level: thirty-second floor. Time to hit the brunch rush.

As the lift gently but quickly rises, she takes her phone from her pocket and affixes it to a mirrored wall. Softly, muffled by the breather, she tells it to start streaming, and begins to undress.

By the twelfth floor her hoody has come off and lies by her feet on the floor. By the sixteenth her jeans have joined it. She’s removed her shoes by the twenty-first.

Between twenty-three and twenty-four she takes the breather from her mouth, and takes in lungfuls of pristine, perfumed air with a desperate relief. She coughs grey mucous spatter on the mirror, narrowly missing the phone’s lens. 

At the twenty-sixth floor she starts to rip away the 2ndSkin, starting from her head and working her way down. She tears at it slowly at first, exposing fever-damp patches of freshly shaved scalp, but then the impatience and the frustration and the fear and the hatred all get too much for her and she yells, ripping the artificial membrane away in cathartic self-violence.

By the twenty-eighth floor she stands naked in front of the mirror.

Her skin is an alien landscape, even to her: death-pale deserts split apart by the volcanic flows of engorged blood vessels. Matrices of rash, and cracked, flaking flesh spread across her chest and back like the shattered maps of dead cities. Her limbs swell and seep with unhealed bruising and infected abrasions.

For the last time, she resists the temptation to scratch, a twisted pride and anger holding back fingers that want to rip away this skin, too.

At the thirtieth floor she looks into the camera lens and speaks.

—My name is Mia Andrews. I speak for the poor and forgotten of London. I am here to represent the thousands of us that will die in this city today. I bring our suffering, our pain, our infections to those who have forsaken us. I bring our disease and our pain and our death to share with those who have sealed themselves away. I bring equality.

At the thirty-second floor the lift chimes, Mia turns, the doors slide open, and the crowds outside start to scream. 

 

Tim Maughan is a British writer currently based in Brooklyn, using both fiction and non-fiction to explore issues around cities, art, class, and technology. His debut short story collection Paintwork received critical acclaim when released in 2011, and his story Limited Edition was shortlisted for the 2012 BSFA short fiction award. His non-fiction work regularly appears in a number of places, including the BBC and New Scientist, and he has recently given talks at Princeton School of Architecture, HASTAC in Lima, Lambeth Council in London, and Sonic Acts in Amsterdam. He sometimes makes films, too.