“Now have I become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
The words sound too loud, an echo of past mistakes reaching forward in time like a noose around my neck.
I lift my glass acknowledging Oppenheimer’s horror on creating the atomic bomb and take another gulp of whiskey. Some of the amber liquid spills over the fine cut crystal glass, drenching the sheet covering my naked body.
As I stand, the room spins and I make my way unsteadily to the bathroom. I need to sober up. Can’t turn up to my hour of triumph in this state. Humanity’s saviour, the Nobel Prize winner for Economic Sciences 2070 must keep up public appearances after-all.
My parents, had they not succumbed to the pandemic of 2020, would be bursting with pride at my accomplishments: From refugee in desperate flight from a world gone mad to conquering hero of a brave new world. Yes, I have a lot to celebrate.
I stumble to the shower and allow the warmth of the water to clear my alcohol-filled mind. As it washes over me, I find myself slipping back to a freezing camp in Calais, one of many I and my parents found ourselves in: no food, no shelter, no safety, only the clothes on our back and each other for comfort, and a desperate determination to make it across the Channel.
My father tells us stories every night as he and my mother shelter me between them, offering what little comfort he can from the relentless rain seeping into our bones. As the unforgiving downpour continues, icy cold on my skin, I vow that one day I will invent a machine that will stop the rain from ever touching us again: out of the mouth of babes.
My eyes sting, angrily I rub at them – no point crying over spilt milk. Instead, I need to get ready to greet my adoring audience. This is a special occasion indeed – the opportunity for people to gather together in a crowd is a rare occurrence these days. I need to make the most of it. I turn the faucet from hot to cold, gasping as the icy water stings my body and cools my regrets.
Shivering, I step out of the shower. My head feels clearer and I feel a twinge of anxiety about tonight. Being face-to-face with a crowd of people is something I’m not familiar with anymore. It might be 50 years since the pandemic turned the world on its axis, but the fear of it has embedded itself deep into the human psyche. What was once necessary has become the norm for those of us who can afford it, and I have only added fuel to the fire. Pushing down my dark thoughts, I continue to prepare.
I dress carefully, and see the bot in the mirror still lying on the bed, naked as the day it was made.
“Get dress and leave.”
I feel a sense of distaste as it obediently complies.
I resume my preparations, my fingers trembling slightly as I do up the last button. I stain my lips with Berry Intense and apply mascara to my fine naked lashes and look at my reflection: brown eyes, shoulder length hair and a middle age spread squeezed into a midnight blue evening gown reflect back at me. I am not familiar with the figure in the mirror. She has become a stranger to me. I take a breath and feel a tightness in my chest and the rapid beat of history desperate to break free. I calm myself by closing my eyes and counting backwards until it fades away.
When I open them again, I notice in my reflection that one thing is missing, the piece de resistance. I go to the centre of the mantlepiece and pick up the shiny silver oval broach. It looks innocent enough, but I know that the Uni Shield isa double-edged sword. It is also the reason for tonight. I clip it to my dress and activate it before calling for my car and leaving my hotel room.
I feel uneasy as I step into the deserted corridor and hastily make my way to the lift. Even with the Uni-Shield humming soothingly around me, I feel exposed. The lift doors open and I step inside. The descent is over before I can even blink and I find myself stepping into the foyer. It is a bustling hive of bodies, with people checking in and checking out; if I squint my eyes, I can see the dim blue light of their Uni-Shields cocooning them from each other like a gilded cage.
I jump at my name, heart hammering in my chest and turn to see a smiling hotel attendant in his neat maroon uniform greeting me.
“Y-es?” I gasp
“Your car is outside.”
He turns and leads the way; I have no need to squint to know that he does not possess a Uni-Shield. His kind have no need of one – the perks of being a bot. I almost envy him.
We exit the hotel into a heavy downpour. As rain hits my shield, it hisses and evaporates in a puff of steam. I recall my initial sense of euphoria on finally fulfilling my childhood vow. With the rise of the monsoon winter in many parts of the world, this device has become the biggest thing since the internet. I never imagined it becoming what it is – I wonder how history will remember me: saviour or destroyer?
As I look through my protective bubble, I see people going about their business, each cocooned in their own little Uni-Shield world: disconnected entities moving past each other like ghosts – echoes of humanity. Although they can see, they have forgotten what it is like to touch, to feel, to be connected to each other – to be connected to life. Then I see him, just to the side of the hotel, the anomaly in the sea of empty souls. Totally open to the elements, with his threadbare coat soaking up the rain, he sits barefoot on the hard ground, his sunken eyes, dark pebbles seeking salvation where there is none to be found.
My stomach nosedives at the sight of him; without a shield he seems naked, vulnerable, exposed. Yet at the same time, I feel the urge to join him. The rawness of his humanity invites me to open myself up to the elements, to set myself free from my artificial bubble and feel the icy winter rain on my face, breathe fresh air that isn’t recycled. A part of me wants to remember what it is like to live again, to truly experience the world from beyond this prison I have created for myself and the rest of humanity.
What started out as a childish vow has turned into something far deadlier. No longer used just for the rain, the Uni-Shield has embedded itself in human society, activated at all times outside the home, indoctrinating the world into distancing themselves from life and each other.
Our eyes meet and the tightness in my chest is back again, more intense this time, memories hammering at me. I gasp as pain continues, travelling down my arms. Suddenly, the world turns itself on its head and I am falling. I hit the ground hard and my protective bubble evaporates. Barely conscious and blinded by the rain, I reach out for help, but all I see is the bluish tinge of Uni-Shields walking rapidly away from me. I surrender to the darkness…
Everything hurts. My chest feels like it’s been pummelled into paper mâché, but thankfully although still tight, the excruciating pain is fading away. I am totally disorientated. What happened?
The accented English brings me fully awake and I realise I’ve spoken out loud. I open my eyes and am greeted by sunken dark pebbles. I try to activate my Uni Shield.
“It broke when you fell,” my bedraggled rescuer explains.
I let my hand fall and notice we are no longer outside. I’m lying on one of the maroon sofas in the foyer.
“Heart attack?” My mouth is so dry. “How do you know?”
“I used to be a Nurse. I resuscitated you.” He smiles reassuringly. “Just lay back. The ambulance is on its way.” He pats me gently.
Memory returns. My eyes burn as the tears fall. I recall the blue tinge of the Uni Shields veering away from me. People leaving me to die, not wishing to witness the finality of death. Am I the destroyer of worlds? I wonder. The truth of it rises before me, and the tears fall harder.
“Shh. You’re going to be okay.”
I am soothed like a child, so gently and tenderly by this stranger who is both familiar and unfamiliar to me. The chill in my heart eases as he strokes my hair and gradually, I come to understand another truth – the human spirit is not dead; it is simply hiding in unexpected places.