There was a time when one person could touch another. There was a time when two humans could reach across empty space and grasp hands. Let each other know, wordlessly, that they weren’t alone. There were small things. A hair ruffle after a joke. A hug before a goodbye. A kiss after wishing goodnight.
Then, there were big things. When a mother could hold her crying infant for the first time. When one could hold onto a friend’s shoulder to reassure him that the world hadn’t ended. When two lovers, sprawled out lazily on a bed, could make love.
There was a time for each. There was a time to touch and to feel.
And now, the empty spaces between people were filled with fear. But the longing for each other never went away.
Somewhere in the twenty-first century, people started dying after touching each other. A handshake by a business executive led to him collapsing of a heart attack a few minutes later, meanwhile the one who shook his hand lived on to live a ripe life. Somewhere else, two teenagers high-fived each other and collectively passed away within the next hour. People came together and then withered away. All that was needed, was a touch.
In this world, when two people touched each other, it was a certainty that at least one of them would die.
It took no time to notice the sudden deaths. It took a much, much longer while to figure out why they happened. And by the time they did, there were so many of them.
It is a curious thing, almost poetic, for mankind to almost meet its end by something so alike in nature to us. You see, in terms of behavior, humans are very much like viruses. Destructive in temperament, rapid in growth, and utterly uncaring in consequences. It was only a matter of time till others evolved enough to be the apex predator, competing for the spot.
But what this new virus did, wasn’t just killing. That came second. What it did first was isolate us from each other and keep it that way.
In four years, more than a third of humanity had died from the virus. With a statistical analysis of the deaths caused in a social exchange, the leading medical experts had concluded that there was an 84.1% chance of at least one participant dying, with a 15.6% chance of both participants dying.
But within that 0.3%, there was salvation. In that small statistical percentage trapped between two eternal voids, you could risk a hug.
Alas, the scientists hadn’t figured out where the virus came from or what vaccine would cure it. But they knew how to prevent it:
Never touch another person again.
Sadik looked at the pretty girl standing in the next bus pod. She held onto the bus ceiling’s handle and scrolled through her phone. He was separated from her by a glass partition, which served as a side for each of their pod units. He watched her put her phone in her pocket, sweep her curly black hair from her face, and stare wistfully out of the window. As the silver, driverless bus glided smoothly on the metal tracks, something about the girl’s demeanor made Sadik curious. She dressed like she was from a different time, wearing all denim, a trend that had not been around in half a century. Even her facemask is the simple clinical kind. He thought in frustration. Sadik had prided himself on his ability to deduce something about someone’s personality by the facemask they wore, yet hers told him nothing. There really is something about her.
At least that’s what he told himself, to distract from the fact that he found her attractive and wanted to strike up a conversation with her. But how do I do this? I’m going to make an absolute moron out of myself. What if she takes it the wrong way and cancels me on social media? He asked himself. It has been four years though. Everyone wants this now, right…?
Sadik braved himself and knocked on the glass. “Adaab.” He greeted.
The woman looked around quizzically, saw him smiling, and took off her wireless earphone and mask.
“I really like your outfit.” He said.
The woman smiled. “Thank you ji!”
“Do you often wear this kind of clothing?”
“I do, actually. I’ve always admired more vintage clothing. Makes me feel like I belong in simpler times.”
“I know that feeling! It really is a great look on you, I have to say. My name’s Sadik by the way.”
“Hi, I am Alia!” She replied. “I’d shake your hand but you know…” She tapped the pod wall and shrugged. “Permanent quarantine.”
“Not to worry about that. How about we try this instead?” He put his hand against the glass.
“Oh I have seen that movie and I am not doing that. I told you I am a little old fashioned, so how about this?” She folded her hands together and said “Namaste,” as she made a solemn bow.
Sadik chuckled as he repeated the gesture. “Must never forget our Hindustani culture, huh?”
“Never. So where are you headed?”
“Just finished a long day of work so I am heading home. You?”
“Oh, I’m on my way home too.”
“And what is that?” Sadik asked, gesturing towards a large bag near her foot.
Alia froze for a second, almost like she had forgotten it was even there. “Oh, that is a telescope I got.”
“Fancy stuff. But there aren’t any physical shops anymore, so where did you get it from?”
“No, no I didn’t buy it right now. I am just getting it from my boyfriend’s old apartment.”
Sadik’s heart sank at that. You honestly expected a girl that pretty to be single? Idiot. He cursed at himself. But regardless, he continued with the conversation.
“Gotcha. Some important night you both got planned today?”
“Actually, yeah! I’m glad you asked because I have been going around telling everybody I know about this.” Alia said. “Today is the day the star Betelgeuse is scheduled to go supernova. So, if you want to really treat your eyes, don’t go to bed too early.”
Sadik stared at her. “Okay…but I am not too big on astronomy. Doesn’t that mean it is going to explode?”
“Uh so you’re telling me the world is going to end for a second time then?” He nervously laughed.
“Ha, you’re funny! Nothing like that. Technically, the star already exploded like 600 years ago.” Alia said matter-of-factly. “It’s just the light from the explosion that will be reaching us today. And I can tell you already, it’s going to be breathtakingly beautiful, man.” A look of fervor appeared on her face that made her grin as she spoke. “Just imagine gazing at an empty spot in the dark sky and seeing a tiny little pinprick of light that appears out of nowhere. Then it gets bigger and bigger till it’s almost as big as the Moon itself!”
“That’s nuts! I didn’t know anything about this. How bright will this thing be? Do I need to get a telescope too?”
“Not at all, dude. It’ll be so bright that it’ll be visible during the day and will cast dual shadows in the night.”
Sadik’s mouth formed a comical O. “You said you’ve been telling everyone about it but why do you have to? Why am I hearing about it from a person I happened to meet on the bus, rather than the news or social media? I mean, for an event as big and exciting as this…it doesn’t look like a lot of people know about this supernova event.”
“I mean I’ve made some efforts but I don’t blame them.” Alia shrugged and looked outside the window with the same sad expression she had earlier. “No one has had an easy time in the last few years, right? Sometimes the best things are never noticed.”
He nodded solemnly and they were both silent for a few minutes. The sky darkened into a twilight as the towering skyscrapers and bridges whizzed past and the automated bus took them from the industrial regions of the city to the residential ones. In a world with no human touch, robotics was the obvious answer. Things that involved physical contact between two people were now obsolete and brought a noticeable change in scenery and structure of major cities. From the center of the metropolis, the smog hidden monotonous steel buildings that housed gigantic vertical shopping centers and repair shops, studded with warehouses in between, paved way for lush, golden-green meadows that enforced social distancing and led to circular neighbors of suburban houses which were built only for the elites. Pretty sure neither of us could ever afford to live in places like these. But that’s the dream, isn’t it? Sadik thought. That’s all it will ever be too though. This bus doesn’t even stop in this region.
After an interlude of thick woods came the homes of the majority of the populace. With blocks of apartment complexes that looked no different from each other and resembled the aesthetic of the industrial architecture, the region that birthed the bloodless robots and automatons.
“So what work do you do?” Alia asked, breaking the silence.
“I am a mechanic. They can automate everything, but they still need somebody to fix those machines when they break down or misbehave, right?”
“That’s very impressive, man. People like you are the reason this world is still functioning.”
“Normally, I’d be modest and say that’s not the case but you’re right, it absolutely is the case.”
Alia chuckled and leaned against the glass. “We’re living in strange times.”
Sadik leaned against the glass as well and wished he felt her weight pressing back against him. But the glass was called protective for a reason. It was hard and unbudgeable.
“That we are. What job do you do?”
“Oh, I am a blogger and poet for an online newspaper. Nothing too hotshot.”
“Hey, I beg to differ. When the world ended, in those months of quarantine, we turned to artists, remember?”
Alia turned her head at him, and smiled. “Aw, that was sweet of you to say. Thank you!”
“Sweet yes, but also very true.”
“Now approaching Stop Number 37” A robotic voice announced. “ETA two minutes.”
Sadik picked up his backpack and put on his protective gloves and mask. “That’s me.” He said in a muffled voice. “It was lovely to have met you, Alia.”
Alia smiled and put her hand against the glass partition. “You as well.”
He knew she had done that gesture as a joke, but he was still oddly touched by it. He put his hand against the glass too.
“Man, your hand is big.” She commented. “You know what they say about men with big hands?”
“What?” He asked, smiling and knowing where this was going.
“Big gloves.” She winked.
Sadik laughed, wishing she didn’t have a boyfriend. “Take care now.” He said as the disinfectant mist was sprayed from the ceiling with a harsh hiss and the door to his glass pod opened.
“Be safe, Sadik” She called out as he stepped down and waved at her.
He was cute. Alia thought, putting her earphones back in. It had been a long, emotionally draining day but for a brief moment, she felt something she had not in many months: The fresh possibility of a deeper connection. He really was that cute. And as she got off the bus, she wished he had asked for her number. He didn’t even ask for my socials! But in all fairness, neither did I.
Talking with him had reminded Alia of how things had been when she first met her boyfriend, Yuvraj. The furtive courtship tinged with awkwardness gave her a thrill now, just like it had in the past when Yuvraj had first approached her.
And as she walked, towards her towering apartment complex thinking about her boyfriend, she felt desperate shame. How I could I do that to him? Alia thought, her eyes misty underneath the safety glasses. Yet with each flickering thought of Sadik’s dimpled smile, a flash of Yuvraj’s crooked one would dance in front of her eyes. I am a piece of shit. She decided, stepping into the dimly lit elevator.
But as she keyed into the dingy apartment that was once a home, she felt harrowing grief. She switched on the lights, revealing a place that really didn’t look lived in at all. Most of the furniture was covered with white sheets and a thick layer of dust coated everything that was not. The sink was filled with dirty dishes and rotting foods, while the kitchen slab was lined with rows of empty dust covered gin bottles. An unmade bed peaked at her from a doorway, pulling at her like a magnet. A bed with only one side slept in.
Alia grabbed the only two wine glasses from a cabinet and went to the balcony, where she poured red wine from a bottle she had pulled out from her bag. Swirling the wine but without a sip, she took a deep breath and looked at her only view. Rows of tall, darkening apartment buildings surrounded her, each with columns of windows, some lit and some not. But in each one of them, Alia saw somebody. For in each window, there was a story. In one, there sat a child in the corner of his room, cuddling his teddy bear. In another, a gowned woman watered her house plants, greeneries and slender vines slithering out of her window. One had an old man reading a tablet and smoking from a vape, remnants of a bygone era, while the next one had someone bald blowing bubbles in a bathtub. All of them were busy, oblivious to what was shortly about to happen. But there was more to it. There was another commonality, a shared factor that united them all. She saw it. She felt it. The yearning for someone else.
If only there was a way to puncture this cloud of isolation, wouldn’t that be something? How could we all be here right next to each other but still not say something? But… was it really that different back then? She wondered, remembering her college days when she’d walk to classes and see people with heads bowing at smartphones, people with their glassy eyes and their elsewhere stares walking right past her in zombie-like trances.
Her phone buzzed suddenly with her mother’s nth text. Alia sighed. She worries so much about me. She typed back a quick “I am okay, maa hby?” and then switched off her phone. Today she needed to feel that longing. She sat back into a chair and looked at the sky. The moon and the stars were coming alive as the twilight receded more and more into blackness. Alia could practically count the star’s appearance one by one and she finally spotted the one she, for so long, was looking for: Betelgeuse, a red supergiant “that sits on the shoulder of Orion”. Yuvraj’s voice spoke from a memory. “But it’s dying. Not because it’s old but it’s so big, it cannot handle its own weight and so, it’ll explode as a supernova. And that could happen at any time, you know? Right at this very second or thousands of years from now. If the astronomers are wrong with their estimates, then it’s a Schrodinger’s Star. But if they are right, it already is dead. It’s a ghost star in the sky that’s already dead. We just haven’t seen it die yet.”
She carefully pulled out the telescope from its bag and set it up, fully knowing she won’t need it. The telescope was broken, and the star spectacle would be visible to the naked eye, but it was something he would have done. She then picked up the bag and buried her face in it. She took a deep breath and smelt a hint of his scent. And in the moment, she swore, she swore she could feel him. She felt his chest pressing against her and heard his goofy laugh in her ears. She could sense the warmth of his breath down her neck and even the taste of his tongue. The memory of every hug and kiss and touch swept over her. So did every shared sunset with a glass of wine, every fight, every making up for that fight, and every time she would wake up next to his warm breathing body.
She took a breath again and he was gone. Again.
Bereavement sank in her bones like lightning bolts. Alia dropped to her knees and shook in the sorrow, a silent scream stuck in her throat as a wave of tears cascaded across her face.
Moments passed until it was time. Alia did not feel like getting up, almost as if she had melted into the floor. But she did it anyway. For it was time. She wiped her eyes and grabbed the undrunk, unsipped wineglass and waited. Waited till it was the right moment. And as the orange star embedded in the shoulder of Orion started receding in its radiance, Alia raised her glass to the night sky and said, “This is for you, babe. This is what we’d have done tonight.”
She took the first sip of blood red wine as a star ended its journey of existence in the universe, and went supernova, washing the world anew with its heavenly light.
“Here’s to a new beginning for you.” She heard Yuvraj’s voice in her head and she could have sworn it came from behind her, from the dark shadows and diminished corners of the lonely, empty apartment.
“You know this was my first glass in months?” She whispered to nothing. “And last too.” She added a minute later, pouring the second glass down the balcony.
Alia stood up a little straighter and saw all those people she had seen earlier through their windows and disguises, come out to the balcony; everyone gazing and pointing at the sky in wonder. For a moment in that thin slice of space and time, they had all just witnessed the formation of something akin to a second moon. A moon, neither in size nor proximity and hence, not in definition, therefore not a moon at all. But it gave light to the night as brightly as the full Moon was already giving. And for the next few months, there would be two moons in the sky. She looked on the floor and saw two shadows sprouting from her feet. Now there were two of her.
Alia leaned across the balcony with a lighter chest and a bright smile and looked at the sky again.
She wondered how the cute guy from the bus was doing.
At dawn, Sadik woke up and watched the dazzling halo in the sky. It’s smaller than my pinkie’s nail, he thought, but so bright, my eyes burn. Even the moon looks faded compared to it.
Last night, instead of his usual schedule of streaming a tv show, eating frozen food, and jacking off, Sadik did some bedtime reading on astronomy. He had not gone too much in depth; just skimmed over a few articles and watched a couple videos from space agencies that used their powerful telescopes to zoom in and capture the supernova. All because a girl on a bus had mentioned it.
Sadik would have happily spent the next hour thinking about Alia and imagining wild scenarios involving her, but he had a little time left and a big decision to make before he had to leave for work. As a mechanic, Sadik earned what he liked to think of as the perfect middle-class life and income. He had rented a small, cozy cabin out in the middle of the woods between the general and the rich housing districts, chosen purposefully because being around people was simply more temptation to touch them. His salary was sufficient for all his basic amenities and even most small luxuries. But if he wanted something big and expensive, like most people, he’d have to save up, which over the course of the last year, he already had. Now was the time to make his big yearly purchase.
Streaks of scarlet were already filling the eastern horizon when Sadik sat down and opened his laptop to browse the shopping site. Over the past weeks, he had finalized his choices down to two products, each fulfilling the same fundamental need but in vastly different methods.
Sadik’s mouse hovered over the first option, which was a product advertised on the website as a “high end realistic skin latex, self-blowing sex doll with several pulsating speeds in each elasticized cavity, built in non-drip, self-cleaning technology, and explicit, interactable AI dialogue in 40 seductive voices.”
Now, a few years ago, the norm would have been to heavily judge someone who makes a purchase like this. But new circumstances inflicted by the virus had driven the remaining members of the human species to desperate measures to feel any kind of contact, whether physical or not. Some people made customized sex toys from the exact measurements of their dead partner’s genitals, while some people purchased sex dolls.
See, Sadik was a virgin and he was going to stay that way. However, it was truly never his choice.
As a child, he was razor focused on his academics to please his mother, something he ended up achieving multiple times in his school and college life, but all that hard work in those sleepless nights never really gave him the chance to broaden his social horizons.
Nevertheless, his parents were not exactly what one would call “physically affectionate.” He knew they loved him; they stated that multiple times. But his father had passed when he was a teen and his mother withdrew into herself so much, she never came out. When the virus had reached its crux, his mother died in one of the many yearlong quarantines and lockdowns. He had to say goodbye to her through a last moment, frantic Zoom call.
Sadik had been alone his whole life and now it was starting to hurt. A mother’s kiss, a father’s hug, a lover’s snuggle, were all things he would only read and weep about—but never feel for himself.
That’s why his second option was something called the Hug Machine. An exorbitant, cutting-edge technology that stimulated the sense of touch so realistically, they claimed it was better than a real one. You could set the time limit, the pressure, the temperature, and the type of hug (“From a coworker’s quick side hug in an informal setting to mother’s bear squeeze after a long day of school.”) with customizable presets.
And there sat Sadik, with the sun rays now filtering through the trees and falling over his cabin, debating with himself on which touch he needed more. His thoughts flickered towards the bus girl and he remembered when he had leaned against the cold glass, hoping to lean against her.
He made the decision. Hugging pillows was getting boring.
Besides that…I’ll always have more socks.
With that fresh mentality, Sadik arrived enthusiastically at work, a little earlier than usual. But he was not the first one there. Mr. Verma, the oldest company employee, was already sitting on the stairs of the warehouse entrance, smoking a cigarette, eating salted peanuts, and squinting at the supernova in the sky.
“Feels like a dream, doesn’t it, Sadik?” He asked in his wizened voice as Sadik readjusted his protective equipment to approach him.
“It does, Verma ji.” He said, standing next to him and watching the glowing nova. “I read it will be visible in the day for at least a month too.”
“Heh. This really maybe a sign that I should retire, son. For good.”
Sadik laughed. “The world will end, and we’d all be dead before that happens, sir. How’s the wife?”
“What do I say, bachcha? She’s struggling with the radiation. Just because there is this virus out there, doesn’t mean the other diseases stopped existing, does it? No matter how much I beg God for that… But she will make it. I know at least that in my bones.”
He nodded. “Inshallah, she’ll be fine, sir. I promise. I have been praying everyday.”
Mr. Verma didn’t say anything. Instead, he got up slowly, threw the cigarette away, and shoved the peanut packet in his jacket.
“Just wish I could at least hold her, son.” He said, in an almost whisper. “Come on, now. Let’s get this door open.”
I know he jokes about retirement, but I’d be really sad to see him go, Sadik thought as he followed Mr. Verma, who opened the warehouse doors by pressing his hand on the biometric scanner and hacked a cough. Forced to come out of retirement because his wife is at stage III? Haye, Allah. This is cruel world, but this is a good man.
For several hours, work was peaceful. Whether it was repairing inner electronic circuits or welding detached joints, Sadik was breezing through. His hands were on autopilot, but his mind was back on the girl on the bus. He knew she had a boyfriend and for some reason, he still wanted to be in touch with her. Should’ve asked for her number. I really should’ve asked for her number, damn it! That left a bitter taste in his mouth. You can think as much as you want, about whatever you want. Sadik assured himself. But as long as it’s not in your actions, it’s not real. You made the right call. You always do, pal.
With plans of trying to find Alia’s social networking profile later in the day and hopefully reach out to her there, Sadik continued his work.
But suddenly, in the hustle bustle of the workshop, amongst hammer pangs and sharp hisses of welding metal, a single sound rang out that quietened everything else and made even time stand still: a deathly rattling of the lungs and a choked scream rang out in the workhouse. Sadik, who was busy patching a software update of an old android, whipped around and saw a purple faced Mr. Verma tearing at his throat, desperately trying to breathe. Right next to him, scattered on the floor was a packet of peanuts. Around him, his frozen co-workers helplessly watched the old man die. At that moment, Sadik remembered an old video about the Heimlich maneuver, a procedure to help someone who was choking by hugging them from behind and pushing their stomach to dislodge the object stuck in the windpipe.
Without thinking, without consideration of chances or certainties, without a care in the world, Sadik ran to help him.
One moon died as the sun steadily climbed the sky’s ladder, but the world was still lit by moonlight.
Aagosh Chaudhary is a writer and an undergraduate student majoring in Applied Engineering with a minor in fictional filmmaking. His novel, The Last Man, was traditionally published in India in June 2021, and his essay submission won the OISS Essay Contest in 2020. He’s an RA in Wilson Hall and enjoys pursuing photography on the side.