“Just this morning we have received even more reports of looting as well as groups of vigilantes taking over urban streets in every major city in the country. Additional National Guard units have been called up by the President to deal with these problems as well as provide additional security outside the White House and at the US Capitol Building. Casualties just from last night's fighting were well over a thousand and are only expected to get worse in the days ahead.
“The head of CDC has reported that we have reached an acceptable plateau and expects the deaths from the virus pandemic to begin decreasing. She thanks everyone for continuing to follow federal lockdown restrictions for the last twenty years and wearing masks when you step outside your home or bunker. Were it not for that, the virus deaths could easily have been hundreds of times worse.”
“Turn that radio off, Kathleen,” my mother called to me from where she was folding the clothes that she and I had washed and dried earlier today. “You don't want the vigilantes to be able to trace the signal to our bunker, do you?”
“Today's weather's forecast is clear and sunny, and the level of radioactive fallout should be slightly less than yester–”
I shook my head, sighed, and turned the illegal radio off. “I just wanted to listen to the news. Not that there's much else to do here.”
“Our bunker is hidden and safe,” my mother said. “When conditions improve outside, we'll leave here. But not before.”
I nodded and went back to my bedroom. It really wasn't a room, though. It was just an alcove in one of the main room's walls. But it was all that I'd had since I was a baby.
Twenty years. Every time the government disease experts expected the virus to finally wane and people could slowly emerge and restart their lives the virus would mutate. Almost as if the virus was telling everyone: “Not this year, you silly humans. I'm still in control. Wait until next year.” But when the next year rolled around, the virus was just as potent as ever.
I laid down in my bed and picked up a framed photo of my father. I'd never known him when he was still alive. He'd sacrificed his life to make sure that my pregnant mother was safe and secure in the subterranean bunker he'd designed, built, and stocked a year earlier. My mother said that he was probably killed by roaming arsonists who torched our home as well as almost every other home in the neighborhood.
Nothing had happened to the arsonists as far as we knew. The authorities had given up trying to protect everyone from the day my mother began her subterranean existence. An existence that evolved into variations of sameness. The same daily routine, the same books and magazines (the bunker's storage had to be divided so that there was enough room for food, clothes, and reading material), and meals that were repeats of meals we'd already had.
My mother told me that the only day she was truly happy here was the day she gave birth to me. I was the sign of hope that someday we'd be able to escape from this infernal bunker.
That was twenty years ago. Twenty long years of isolation, of feeling like we were buried alive.
Before I was born, people had used the term “cabin fever” to describe being stuck at home for a very long time. It seemed laughable these days and didn't even begin to describe what my mother and I went through every single day.
We tried hard not to get on each other's nerves. We tried to find ways to pass the time as pleasantly as possible. But we humans weren't built for permanent isolation. We need our social connections, even if they're only verbal, not physical as well. We also sometimes get claustrophobic.
“Kathleen?” my mother called to me. “Do you want to play another game of Scrabble?”
I shook my head. “No thanks.”
I put down the framed photo of my father and picked up the VR goggles and gloves. They were wireless and the base unit was set in a slot in the wall above my head. I'd pretty much visited all the locations in the basic installation. Maybe it was time to try the locations in the intermediate installation.
Putting on the VR goggles and gloves, I turned on the VR computer system. The floating menu appeared about a foot away. I went to the intermediate menu for the first time and scrolled through the location choices. Europe looked interesting, but I decided to go to Seattle instead.
The menu slid out of the way and a view of the Seattle waterfront took its place. It was as if I was standing near the bow of a ferryboat. The ferry dock and the terminal building steadily grew in size.
Beyond them, I could see the remains of a two-level highway. Like a really long bridge stretching from off to my right to way off to my left. A label flew in from off-screen and floated in front of the two-level highway: Alaskan Way Viaduct. Built in 1951, demolition to be completed later this year.
A menu popped up with a query for me: Where would you like to go next? It listed a dozen possible destinations. There was a thumbnail photo of each location which would expand to full-size if I clicked on it.
If I didn't want to go to those places, I could even ask for another list of possible destinations.
Pike Place Market sounded interesting. I clicked on that.
The waterfront flowed past me as I headed north. Then we turned right and “climbed” several flights of stairs. Eventually, we reached the street level. I looked at a manhole covering in the surface of the street. It read: Pike Street and 2nd Avenue.
On my left was a long, rectangular building. Labels explained to me that this was an extension of the Market building. This was where most of the vendors sold their wares.
Nearby, in an uncovered area of the concrete walkway that ran along the length of the long building was a large metallic statue of a pig. A label flew in and told me that the statue was called Bertha. Nearby was an upright piano with a bench in front of it. Another label flew in, giving me the chance to listen to someone play it. I clicked “yes” and saw a man walk up and sit down on the bench in front of the piano and begin to play it. When he finished, I clapped along with some of the visitors. As he played, a label flew in, asking if I wanted to add any ambient touches to the location. People talking, the sound of them walking around, as well as vehicles passing by. I clicked “yes” and suddenly I felt like I was actually there.
Ahead of me, on the left, were two counters, separated by a walkway, where seafood-vendors sold food and – hard to believe, but the label wouldn't give out false information – fish were sometimes thrown from one seafood counter to the other. A label asked if I wanted to see it in action and I clicked on it. I heard the men behind the counters chanting and then one of them suddenly threw a fish to the other man. There was cheering and a smattering of applause from a crowd of invisible people. (I'd forgotten to ask to see the visitors at the Market. Oops.)
I walked past them and two long stands on my right, where fresh flowers were sold. Without the olfactory software upgrade (an additional cost that my mother thought wasn't worth it), there was no way to smell the flowers. I would just have to imagine what they smelled like. At least I could “touch” the flowers as I passed them.
Exiting to the street, I walked past assorted parked vans and cars. The crowds in the street weren't really there. I could tell, because they and I walked through each other, without bumping into each other as we would've in the real world.
I glanced at the storefronts on my right as I walked past them. Nothing really caught my attention until I saw a label fly in and tell me that there was a bakery near the front of the building that was now on my right. The bakery was called The Three Sisters. It wasn't much bigger than the inside of the bunker. I watched as customers and employees interacted and then walked up to the counter. There were all sorts of baked goods available for purchase: loaves of bread, rolls, donuts, and assorted desserts.
A label flew in, giving the choice of “speaking” with one of the employees at the counter. That was something new for me, so I clicked on “yes”.
The female employee spoke to me: “Good afternoon. What can we do for you?”
“I wondered what you had for sale,” I said.
“All that you can see,” she said. “What are you interested in?”
A menu popped up on my right, showing a listing of everything they sold.
“Maybe a dessert,” I said.
“We have plenty to choose from,” she said. “Anything in particular?”
“Um,” I said, skimming through the list of desserts. “What are … Russian tea cookies?”
She smiled. “Oh, those are really good. You should try one.” Then she made a face. “Oh, that's right. You can't. But at least I can show what they look like.” She went to the tall, narrow shelves on her left, and removed an item from the middle shelf. It looked like a scone only it had powdered sugar sprinkled on it. “These are also called Swedish tea cookies and there's a similar item called Mexican wedding cookies. Would you like to purchase some? They can be delivered to your home address.”
“Um,” I said. “I'm not at home. My mother and I are … uh … camping. Maybe when we return home.”
“That's quite all right,” she said and put the Russian tea cookie back where she got it. “Anything else?”
“No, I guess that's all,” I said. “Thank you very much.”
She nodded and went to interact with another customer.
I walked away from the bakery. Where to go next? Stay in Seattle, or leave it and go to a different city?
A menu popped up while I was trying to decide, giving me a list of suggested places to visit in downtown Seattle. I chose the Seattle Art Museum. Streets, sidewalks, people, and vehicles flowed past me until I stood beneath a tall, dark moving sculpture. A label flew in, telling me it was called Hammering Man. I saw the arm holding the hammer rise and fall. Another label flew in, asking if I wanted to enter the museum. I clicked on “no” and “walked” across the street instead.
On the opposite side of the street from the museum was a long, wide stairway, going down a few levels before reaching the street below it. At every level was a narrow fountain, perpendicular to the street. One level had plenty of open space and there were metal chairs and tables on it. Further down the stairway, I could see the waterside buildings again, separated from one another, with an open plaza-like area between them. The building ahead and to the right said it was the Seattle Aquarium.
When I reached the sidewalk in front of it, I noticed a tall man standing there, holding a musical instrument upright next to him. He had shoulder-length dark hair and was dressed in old-fashioned clothing. A black suit jacket with tails, white ruffled shirt under it, black pants, and black boots.
“In case you're interested, it was once called Victorian,” he told me. “My clothes, I mean.”
“You're the second person who has spoken to me here in Seattle,” I said.
“There are others,” he said. “We're all part of the VR software. Haven't you been here before?”
I shook my head.
“Perhaps I could be your guide for the time being, then,” he suggested.
“Are you allowed to?” I asked.
“Unlike some of the others, I have been programmed to be able to move beyond my initial location,” he said.
I asked, “Do you have a name? Or do I have to give you one?”
“I am Edward Denny,” he said. “And you are?”
“Kathleen Evans,” I said.
“Then I shall call you Kathleen,” he said. “And you may call me Ned.” He paused, then explained, “These pier buildings date back more than a hundred years. They were originally mainly for storage. But they have been converted over time so that they could be used for different purposes. Standalone stores or indoor shopping areas, for instance.”
I looked over at the front of the Aquarium building.
“This one is the Seattle Aquarium,” Ned said. “Newly renovated. Would you care to go inside?”
“Maybe some other time,” I said.
“Do you have aquariums where you live?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“May I ask where you live, Kathleen?” he asked.
“Currently, I live in an underground bunker with my mother,” I replied. “I was born there. We've lived in it for the last twenty years while waiting for the pandemic to end.”
Ned looked thoughtful. “Pandemic,” he said, and was quiet for some time. “Ah yes. COVID-19 virus of the early to mid-21st Century. First discovered in China and spreading worldwide from there.”
“Do you know when it will end?” I asked.
Ned shook his head. “I am only aware that it is still happening. It may end today, or next year, or next century. I cannot precisely predict its end date. I am immune to its effects, of course, since it can only affect flesh-and-blood persons such as yourself.” He paused. “Would you like to continue discussing the pandemic, or choose a different topic?”
“Let's continue down the waterfront,” I suggested.
“Certainly,” he said.
At the bay-end of the next pier building was a Ferris wheel. I tried not to stare at it. Of course, I'd seen videos and photos of them, but I'd never seen one in real life, much less ever ridden in one.
“Ferris wheel,” Ned explained, noticing my interest in it. “First designed and built by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. for the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. The exhibition's organizers wished for a landmark and asked him to build one.”
“This one isn't that old, though,” I said. “It looks much newer.”
“The Seattle Great Wheel,” he explained. “175 feet tall and opened in June 2012.”
“Before I was born,” I said.
“And before my software was created,” he said. “Care to go for a ride in it?”
“Can we?” I replied.
“Of course,” he said, and we walked over to the Ferris wheel.
The man at the gate didn't seem to see us. We walked past him and climbed into the open capsule. The capsule's door closed soon after and the ride started up. We rose slowly toward the sky. It stopped when we were at the top, giving us a wonderful all-around view of the bay, the waterfront, and the downtown area.
“I wish I'd done this in real life,” I said.
“You still could,” Ned said. “Once the pandemic ends, I mean.”
“I couldn't afford to travel here,” I said. “My mother and I aren't what I'd call wealthy. To put it bluntly, we're rather poor.”
“I'm sorry to hear that, Kathleen,” he said. “Maybe it's good that you can at least visit here via the VR software. That way we could meet and spend time together.”
“Are you happy that we did?” I asked as the ride started up again and we rotated down toward the wooden floor of the pier.
“If not for you, I would still be standing where you saw me, waiting for someone to approach and speak with me,” he replied.
“Does that mean you can be happy?” I asked.
“Within the limits of my software code, yes, I can be happy,” he replied. “Or at least an approximate imitation thereof.”
“And when I take off the goggles and gloves,” I said.
“I will remain here, waiting for you to return, or for someone else,” he said.
“I'm sorry that you're stuck here, Ned,” I said.
“But I have met you, Kathleen,” he said and smiled. “And I am glad that we met.”
It was my mother calling me.
“It's dinner-time,” she said. “Put your VR gear down and help set the table.
“I have to go,” I told Ned.
Like an old-fashioned gentleman, he took my right hand and lifted it to his lips. I felt him kiss my hand. “Until next we meet, Kathleen.”
I nodded, not quite sure what to say. No one had ever kissed my hand before. Not in VR, not in real life.
I took off the VR gear, laid it on my bed, turned off the VR system, and went to set the table for dinner.
“How was your visit?” my mother asked.
“It was quite nice,” I replied. “Have you ever been to Seattle, Mom?”
“A long time ago,” she said. “I met your father there.”
“Could you tell me more about him?” I asked.
My mother nodded. “Such a nice man he was.”
“What was his name?” I asked.
“Ned,” she said.