A series of taps at his wrist alerts Nathan that a delivery has arrived. His vitaband lights up with the checkmark that indicates it is government approved and sterile, so he swipes the alert away and gets up from his desk. He can hear Edgar, already aware of the rover’s arrival, racing back and forth in front of the door with that manic energy that all mini-pins seem to have — tiny doberman pinschers with all the tension of a coiled spring. This racing habit has only become worse now that the lockdown has carried on for so long. Covidx-48 has kept them inside for five months. He imagines that if it goes on any longer, Edgar will wear a kind of track into the floor, a gully he and Alba will have to step across just to get out the door.
Alba. Alba who will be back soon enough. The thought of it sets him just a little on edge. A nervous hum. She was caught abroad when the red-status lockdown was issued, and finally managed to find a flight back to London. Then the authorities demanded a whopping twelve-week isolation period at one of the quarantel complexes near Gatwick, with a medi-cab home after that. Her isolation ends today. And in a way, so does his.
Five months of red-status was a new record. There were ironic celebrations online. One group used the ToGather platform to arrange the largest house-bound toast in history. Nathan was there too, drink in hand. But Nathan was an employee — a ToGather pipeline engineer — and he already suspected what was going to happen. And yes, as the number of users ticked up to 9,999, the user-limit maxed out and no one else could join. It was still a record, but no one knew how many more might have joined were it not for the arbitrary cap. With everyone’s images reduced to nine pixels, they raised their glasses anyway. Then, as not-quite ten-thousand people started competing for attention, Nathan searched for Alba, and they exited to a private call.
She’d left on business back in February, a month before the red-status, so he hadn’t seen her in nearly six months. Yet, strangely he found he had little to say. They asked each other how they were, she talked again about the strange solitude of the quarantels — sprawling hotels run as budget accommodation when there was no pandemic, but built to function as a quarantine centres in times of need. After that, the two of them sat drinking quietly. Nathan told himself this was the sign of a healthy relationship, to be comfortable in one another’s silence. They sent brief messages all the time. Her rat-a-tat pattern on his wrist made him feel less alone, even if the message only said, “Still okay?” or “How’s Edgar?”
At the inner door, Nathan tucks a hand under Edgar’s chest and lifts him while opening the sealed anteroom. Then, after stepping inside, he slides Edgar back into the house with a tossing motion and locks the door. There is a quiet shushing sound as the magnetic seals connect, and then a roar as the fans come online to keep the outside air out. Nathan looks at the street, and shades his eyes. It seems like every pandemic to come through London leads to unnaturally clear weather. Sun gleams off the delivery rover, which has retreated to get video of him receiving the package. The arms fold away, and a woman’s voice warns that there may have been changes to the availability of certain products, “due to unprecedented demand.” He waves the rover off, wondering when they will stop saying “unprecedented.” Pandemics like this one have been rolling through almost predictably for the last fifty years.
He takes the box into the anteroom and sets it down. When the outside door has sealed and the fans stop roaring, he picks up the UV sani-wand unit and runs it carefully around the box. Covidx-48 is unprecedented in one way: the virus can be carried by dogs. The X stands for cross-species. Human to human. Canid to canid. Canid to human and back. The dogs themselves are unaffected. They simply carry it around like a stick to drop at their owners’ feet. And the painfully long incubation period — up to a month in some cases — makes it that much worse. The death rate has hovered at four percent. Large enough to keep everyone nervous. Especially dog owners.
The inner door opens again, and Edgar careens in and out of the anteroom like a yo-yo. Nathan hikes the box up out of his reach, closes the inner door with his foot, and sets the groceries on the kitchen counter. He runs his phone over the code on the label. Substitutions: Forest-brand broccoli for organic broccoli, chicken thighs for free-range chicken breasts. Unavailable items: two kilograms Forest-brand dog food. Nathan stares at the phone. It’s a week until the next delivery. His dog food will run out in two days. The government has strictly mandated that all dogs be kept inside. It has sent out endless guides on keeping dogs active indoors, how to train them to use a puppy pad, and what to do with the waste. How can there be no food?
He pours out a smaller-than-usual serving of kibble for Edgar, who dives in as though he already knows there is a shortage. Nathan watches him eat, kibble spilling to the floor around the bowl. He catches himself wishing that Alma had been the one stuck with the dog. After all, Edgar was hers before they met, before she moved in with him. But Nathan has developed a certain fondness for the animal. Edgar is a clown when they’re outside, always rocketing at full speed toward things, overshooting them, and scrabbling to turn around. Still, being caught inside with him is a bit like being inside a particle collider.
Nathan leaves the box and returns to the office to work. There is an alert on his screen: Network connectivity issue. nodes 1345-1349. err -6. An outdoor issue. Signal loss to a neighbourhood. He pulls up the map and tracks the error to a switch-box in Lewisham. There is no camera on the post at that location, so he queues up the nearest drone and launches it remotely from its nest. He can already see the damage from a distance. A car accident, probably. The box is crushed, folded like paper. He brings the drone closer, but then notices three dogs, differing breeds, across the street. This is one of the tolls of Covidx-48 — hundreds of stray dogs abandoned by fearful owners now patrol the city. They outnumber the men in hazmat suits trying to contain them. All of England, it seems, is engulfed in this new plague of dogs wandering alone or in groups, rooting through garbage. Like scenes from another century. These three stand on the opposite side of the street, watching the drone with interest. He hopes some newfound hunting instinct doesn’t bring them closer. He doesn’t want to do the insurance paperwork for a dog-mauled drone.
As he begins to pull the drone back, Edgar comes charging into the office and launches himself into Nathan’s lap, the trackpad slipping from under his fingers, the drone in Lewisham spinning a circle and threatening to crash. Nathan gets it back under control, and on the monitor sees the dogs scatter, then circle a little closer. He snaps the drone into return mode and lets it pilot itself back to the nest. Then he shoos Edgar out, and slams the door, cursing. He’ll send a report up the ladder to rover-works. The damage is too severe for a repair, so it’s their problem now. He can reroute the service through temporary internet pipelines. A rough fix, but better than leaving the neighbourhood isolated.
Crisis averted, Nathan opens his end-of-quarter proposal. Company engineers have been asked to propose ideas to make the platform a “greater bonding experience.” But Nathan has nothing. No idea. He’s grown up with lockdowns and vid-calls. And everyone but him seems to agree that ToGather is the next-best thing. The saving grace. Some people will set up wall-sized screens in an attempt to connect flats, houses or quarantels so that their loved ones appear to be in an adjacent room — two households separated by a screen. It doesn’t work. Not really. More and more, especially in this seemingly endless red-status, the screens become a tool of alienation rather than togetherness. That's how Nathan sees it. Relatives, friends, husbands and wives — all flattened and unreal. Just another show to watch. A documentary. The emotional connections between them attenuating over time until once-close relatives become nothing but personas.
Sometimes he and Alba will jokingly kiss the screen. He wants it to feel like a loving gesture. He really does. But it ends up feeling foolish. Kissing plastic. Kissing pixels. And there are times, especially lately, when even speaking to her feels strange. Unreal. He misses her. He really does. At times, he genuinely aches for remembered adventures — squelching through peaty bogs in the Yorkshire Dales, soaked to the knees and laughing. Her sister’s wedding in a Swedish pine forest. But even these are mostly remembered through recordings and selfies. Just more images on a screen. He suspects the pandemics have done this, to everyone. Coming out of quarantine seems harder each time. The world a little less trustworthy. There is more hesitancy to touch others. More hesitancy to return to business as usual. The outdoors, pubs, playgrounds, other humans, children, animals, all heaving with invisible threats.
—I’m starting to think you need help, Alba told him when he’d confessed this feeling to her. It was their first lockdown, two years ago, before they’d moved in together. They were lying on their sides in different beds, different parts of the city, trying to create the illusion of being side by side.
—It’s your job, she said. You think too much about video. The rest of us don’t feel that way.
—Based on whose statistics? Yours? Maybe everyone feels the same way I do, and you’re the outlier.
—Now you’re worrying me, she said. She looked down, picked a nail, and after a pause said:
—What if we were stuck like this? Would you stay with me?
—Of course, he said. And he meant it. That was the point. The screens were easy. The screens were safe.
Nathan stares at the empty document. He types: Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of ToGather… but Edgar picks that moment to begin a campaign of scratching at the floor outside the office door, toenails rasping the hardwood with machine-like speed. He won’t stop until he gets in. Nathan slides the keyboard back, stands, and opens the office door with sigh, allowing Edgar to leap up on him, stub-tail wagging so hard it might knock him over.
—Yes, Edgar, I’m still here, he says, and ruffles the tiny head despite himself.
A reminder chimes. Alba will be there soon. On impulse, Nathan goes to the window to check the street, even though he knows she’ll message him before she gets there. When he pulls the drapes back, he’s startled by the whiteness of the light — the houses on his street, their grey Georgian brickwork somehow gleaming like polished metal. The pavement, the street, even the low stone walls, all brighter than bright. Everything solid and heavy and real.
Edgar hops up, standing on his hind legs to see, nose smudging glass. Then his ears snap forward, his eyes sharp. And Nathan sees them, too: two dogs standing across the street, facing the house. The small one muddy brown, the taller dog grey. A standard poodle with unkempt fur. They’re looking up, probably attracted by the opening of the curtains. Their heads cock side to side, and Edgar issues a low whine. Something catches the attention of the poodle, which glances away for a moment, then looks back. After a pause, it turns to leave, the smaller dog in tow.
These were someone’s pets. Now they’re wandering the streets. When it comes down to it, Nathan thinks, people will always choose themselves. He watches the strays lope along the pavement as though it were built for them, and he shivers slightly despite the warmth of the sun beating at the window, the flies buzzing around its frame. For a moment, everything outside seems to want in.
—Lucky you, he says, nudging Edgar, who is still watching the parting dogs. Or maybe you actually want to be out there, he adds. Edgar noses the glass again.
There is a ping from his phone. Alba in her medi-cab, only five minutes away now. And it dawns on him that the house is a disaster. He hasn’t even put away the groceries. There is a creeping panic as he pictures Alba's arrival, her smile collapsing at the state of the place. He heads toward the kitchen, but is interrupted again by the vita-band. A message scrolls across the display, the Forest company apologising for the missing item in his last order. It’s the dog food. They’ve sent it after all. He leaves the groceries again, and opens the anteroom. Edgar comes running, this time dodging his grasp and slipping inside, taking a victory lap around the room, triumphant.
—Fine, says Nathan, and closes the inner door, scooping Edgar up, who now seems content to be held. The outer door opens. The fan starts up, pushing Nathan forward. The rover is there, snapping its delivery photo: man and dog. And as he is reaching down, trying to keep Edgar in one arm and lift the new box with the other, something on the street catches his eye.
Behind the rover, there is a great black dog. Massive. Short-haired. Breedless and grizzled. It stares at them, unmoving, in the centre of the street.
Without warning, Edgar becomes a bundle of snakes, writhing and thrashing. And in a second he is down, racing past the oblivious rover, leaping the pavement and skidding to a stop in front of the stray, his tail tucked beneath him in sudden obeisance. Nathan watches, gooseflesh rising on his arms, as the two touch noses gingerly, then stand, circling nose to tail. He shouts. He shouts No! or Stop! or Edgar! or some unformed throaty syllable which both dogs ignore. Instead, Edgar sits and gleefully begins to lick the larger dog’s face — the stray quietly accepting it. Then, the black dog looks toward Nathan, bends down and licks Edgar from muzzle to eye with two deliberate strokes of its tongue. That complete, it stands, glances briefly toward the door again, and begins to walk away. Edgar watches the monster dog go and seems to consider following, but then he turns, panting happily, and canters back in the direction of the house. His face is wet, his tongue lolling. The sun beats down on Nathan. The fan pushes at his back. Pushes him toward the approaching dog. And without thinking, he tucks the delivery box against his chest, steps inside, and slams the outer door before Edgar can reach him.
In the anteroom, he sets the box down, and undresses.
He leaves his clothes in a bundle and waves the sani-wand over his skin as best he can, knowing it’s ridiculous and unnecessary. His hands shake. As he works, he hears a faint whine at the door. A scritching of nails. Finished, he leaves the wand, the box, the clothes, and opens the inner door. Once inside, he listens for the reassuring hush of the magnetic lock, then taps at the security panel, making the door openable only from inside. Only by him. That done, Nathan sinks to the floor and curses. Again and again and again. No other words enter his head. When he closes his eyes, he sees the black dog, its fur matted and crawling with sickness. A black saliva on its lips.
Edgar is lost. Nathan can’t catch him. Won’t catch him. He can’t bring him inside. Can’t do anything but call the borough’s health-emergency line. Then he remembers the rumour that infected dogs are euthanised. Maybe it would be better to simply let Edgar run. But is that even his decision?
His vitaband goes rat-a-tat. It’s Alba. His heart rising and sinking at once.
Hey, baby! it scrolls. I’m outside!
He does not answer. He only stands, naked and shaking, and slowly backs away from the door. The door-camera activates with a quiet ping, and the front walk pops up on the wall display. He sees her approaching, looking down, her suitcase following at a discreet distance. Behind her, the driverless medi-cab pulls away. Then Edgar is at her feet, jumping and pawing and running circles. She stands there for a moment, uncertain, then lifts her phone to the outer door, which opens. Her hair and coat fly out behind as the fans switch on. And in the anteroom camera, Nathan can see her now, closer. So much closer.
Wordlessly, perhaps thoughtlessly, Alba reaches down to lift Edgar into her arms, her face twisted with confusion. Nathan hears her muffled words of affection filter through the door as he watches the dog lick her face, squirming in happiness, eyes rolling.
—Nate? Babe? she says, The door won’t open. Why is Edgar outside? Are you okay?
Her voice is strangely divided from the video on his phone. She sounds like a stranger. Looks like a stranger. A stranger he wants so much to let inside. A stranger he wants so much to keep away. She calls his name again, and he reaches toward the lock, his hand faltering there. Hovering. And he waits like that, watching Alba’s face on the screen, the stray dogs gathering outside in the summer evening.