Sunday, 22 March 2020

The Prize

It was a beautiful day, day number 1984. The sun drew lines through the branches of the trees that surrounded the apartment block. The rays fragmenting through the tape that held the glass in place, making rainbows in the dark room. Only broken by the bright orange Alibaba liveried grocery drones that criss-crossed the sky overhead.

Nearly 2000 days ago, I closed the door for the last time.

I was lucky, I had a skill that easily translated to the new modular online work-space, I was a teacher and while my subject had changed from English that now had no use, I now taught social skills to those who had little memory of how we used to interact with others, how to look the webcam in the eye, how to understand the difference between web-lag and a pause waiting for an answer, how to make questions and wait for an answer, how to feign interest in others. I had been saved from the fulfilment centres, that was a one-way career, 30 days quarantine then confined to the centre.
Shortly after Lockdown and the beginning of the Days of Safety, the virus had swept through the governments in most countries and being a bunch of old self-abusing narcissists, it took them all. Amazon was the only organisation that had on-the-ground supply networks, so it was only logical that it take over running most countries. Shortly after Alibaba took over the rest and then took over Amazon.
The 2000 days of quarantine were approaching and there was talk of a celebration, we would celebrate anything these days.
The quarantine came quickly, one day we were hearing about some flu virus that was sweeping the Chinese away, I mean, who was really worried, there were billions of them, still are hundreds of millions, I guess, hard to be sure. Next thing, we are stockpiling toilet rolls. The schools were closed and the only life left to us was our online life. I had just got my first tinder account when it all started, I still have it but the geo-setting don’t exist anymore, nor the language, quarantine takes care of one and Google translate takes care of the other.
The screen flashes, I scan my eye and fill in the Amazon Wellness questions before it’s time to start my morning sessions, “intermediate social skills” his avatar springs onto the screen with a huge smile, I still haven’t seen his real face. We are working on compliments today. I had brushed my hair especially but I doubted he would notice. I sometimes have a shower for this module but it wasn’t worth the effort.
He talks for nearly ten minutes about a game he is playing. His avatar blinks and smiles in tune with his voice. I manage to ask him how he is today, then he goes back into the game. There will be a test in 8 days but he will pass, they always do, as long as he gives me thumbs up, we’re okay. They usually give you thumbs down only if you insist on covering the course material, I let him explain his victories and conquests. I don’t even umm and ahh anymore.
After four almost identical hours, I break for lunch. I scroll through the choices and tap. About 15 minutes later I hear the delivery drone in the corridor and my mouth waters. It stops and I hear the characteristic clunck of the delivery flap… in the next apartment. I look at the app and it flashes delivered! with a branded smiley. Third time this 10-day, I hit the contact tab then the challenge tab, not the problem tab, not the complaint tab, these are no longer words, we don’t have problems or complaints anymore just challenges and opportunities. Then the reason for challenge, then delivery, then my finger hovered over the greyed-out unreceived button. A pop-up informed me that delivery was complete with one button confirm, I try to back-step but the button remains Please confirm delivery I tried to swipe it but its “Confirm” button began to pulse gently, I close the app and the confirm button remains. I looked for the contact button but the confirm continues to pulse. I tap it then hit the contact button, the call connected and a voice told me that my delivery had been confirmed, then thanked me for my order. My screen flashed with my next avatar.
When my shift finished I watched a movie about a guy who wakes up after a pandemic has swept through the city of London, the hero finds some people who have wisely stayed at home. They hear about another house to go to and have a harrowing adventure along the way before they reach another big house where the residents have confined themselves. Everyone who leaves the house dies and our hero lives out the rest of his days in the security of the house. It was called 28 days Later, I found it in the classic films directory. I looked around my flat and felt lucky.
The next morning I confirmed delivery of my coffee and went to the window to watch the cats in the branches outside. Its sweetness came as a surprise, I was sure I hadn’t ordered sugar. I put my hand to the glass, it was warm, sure sign that warmer days were coming. The cats leaped through the branches, one had a rat in its mouth. Down at ground level I could just make out the shapes of the dogs, one jumped and grabbed a cat from the low branches before running away. A mass of others snarling and chasing it then a yelp and the mass changed direction. The cats gathered in the high branches watching helplessly as the cat was torn apart beneath a circle of wagging tails.
My screen flashes URGENT MESSAGE! I tap it and read the message.
To celebrate 2000 days of safety, Amazon Wellness will announce great prizes for some lucky subscribers click here for participation in the biggest competition ever!
I clicked, last time I won a free movie and meal for one from Wagamama.
My screen flashes and I begin my shift.
“Greetings, my teacher. You take participation in wellness competition?” I could tell from the translation that this was one of my Asian students. I began to answer but was cut short. “I win a kitchen skin for Minecraft up or down 300 days before!” He, maybe she told me of the wok he had bought to compliment it and the hours he spent cooking exotic dishes, like in the old days that his or her grandma had told him of before the virus took her.
I ordered noodles for lunch but enjoyed the crispy locust that arrived.
Media platforms were awash with anticipation for the coming prizes. Each had their own idea of what they might be, a better-than-life wall screen, a virtual porn centre. One suggested a car, posting a photo of a bright red Ferrari, sitting on the bonnet was a tall old man with a smug grin on his face to ensure others understood what he was referring to. This provoked a backlash of trolling.
This man caused the virus!
I hope those things can climb trees
Didn’t Greta Thurnberg kill him?
Greta Thurnberg had been a great influence since the Days of Safety began and one thing was for sure, climate change had abated. The word was that Beijing air was pretty much breathable now and the weather had been much better behaved. But now I think of it, it has been hundreds of days since I saw any new announcements from her.
I enjoyed the trolling but I could feel the tension growing so I plugged into tinder for some relief. I couldn’t be sure who I was connected to but I sent her a gif with flowers and a “thanks” emoji.
The sun was still high so I watched the cats for a while. A kitten shuffled along the branch that pushed against my window and I stroked it through the glass with one hand, filming it with the other. Then shared it with all my friends. Hundreds of Pings of approval followed.
Day 1990 and the great prize had still not been announced, there were rumours that it was a big hoax. I checked Snopes but while it recognised this, their investigations were still inconclusive.
Some said it might be a holiday in Barbados, no one knew where Barbados had been but some low-def pictures looked good. It looked good but how long would it be before the virus got you and you coughed yourself into early incineration. I think I’d be happy with a new better-than-life wall.
1991 was a rest day, I took my wellness test and went back to bed to play LockDown IV on the Mibox.
I ordered coffee and donuts, which came exactly as I ordered. I chatted about the big prize with some of my friends, I had a couple of sessions on tinder. It was a good day.
1992 and the chat about the prize had changed. Over four billion entrants, what’s the chances? Others said that it was just a way to keep us happy, placated. I’d be happy to get my noodles when I order them!
1993, there was an announcement from Thurnberg foundation, not Greta herself, just an anonymous spokesperson. It said that global warming was showing signs of slowing, vast areas of the Amazon had been reforested and air pollution levels were at the lowest since the time of the industrial revolution. Official figures and a full report would be ready for the 2000 celebrations.
1994,I ordered crispy locust but got chicken noodles.
1995, I got a health warning from my tinder app. The run up the the great prize must have been causing me more anxiety than I realised.
1996 and rumours started of a new strain of the virus that had broken out in a place I’d never heard of. I couldn’t help wondering how. If we were all quarantined how had it “broken out”. The report noted that all Amazon fulfilment centres were free from infection. A spokesman for Amazon was proposing the expansion of the Fulfilment centre model as a new model for residential and industrial centres.
1997, and China Broadcasting Corporation ran a story about maybe as little as another 1000 days and we may be able to probably begin to lift quarantine, but it was early days and further studies needed to be carried out. I got a message from the agency saying that for the celebrations, all sessions would be cancelled, a day off for everyone. I received invitations to cyber-raves, concerts even tinder was organising a free-love day.
1998, I got a message from Amazon Wellness to tell me that “As a precautionary measure” to check my logs and change my access codes. Probably hacked again. That’s why my neighbour keeps getting my food orders! I made a mental note to do it later, after my morning sessions.
1999 and my screen flashed URGENT MESSAGE, I opened the message and punched the sky, I had won! I danced around the room until my chest hurt then sat down. What had I won? I had no idea but this little detail was not going to cool my enthusiasm. I went to the keyboard to share my joy.
“This is a very special prize,” the message read. “Any disclosure will result in immediate disqualification.”
I couldn’t sleep, well I did for a while, when I dreamt that the prize was the latest tinder hardware. The connection with the other was uncanny, like really being with someone, I could feel her, see her face, touch her skin. I awoke in elation, tinged with shame.
The sun was drawing rainbow lines into my room. My screen flashed, “YOU HAVE WON, your prize is courtesy of the Anonymous Foundation!” The screen shut down, the room fell dark with the only light coming through the taped window. My front door clicked then swung open. The light in the hallway flickered then lit brightly. I ventured to the threshold and took a step into the corridor where only drones had stepped for hundreds of days. The lights in the stairwell flickered and lit, I followed their light, some way down I had to hold the banister for support, I couldn’t remember walking so far, even before the days of safety, I had never been a fan. There was a big window looking out into the courtyard where the trees had grown through the concrete, reclaiming their dominion. The dogs were spooked, running in circles, chasing each other. I continued down. The door to the building had swung open to reveal the path through the trees, beaten by the drones. I looked at my feet, I was going to leave the building and all I was wearing was my iron-man slippers. Not that I had any shoes. I leant on the door frame to catch my breath and plan my route. I could see the trees, a forest had grown through the concrete and asphalt of the road, birds chirping in their branches. I shuffled toward the road where there seemed to be a break in the canopy. I stopped, a dog was moving in the undergrowth, breaking branches under foot. It was no dog, too upright, too clothed. I called out but there was no reaction, I pulled deep down in my chest to find some volume.
“HEY!” I called.
He, she turned. It was a man, judging by the hair around his face. He opened his mouth but I heard nothing. I shuffled toward him.
“HEY!” I heard from another direction.
Behind me, from my own building bodies moving. I walked toward the figure.
“I won the prize!” I heard a female voice, behind me.
We gathered in the clearing in the canopy.
“I won the prize!” another cried.
“Me too!”
“And me!”
“But what is it?”

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