Rahul the repairman arrived looking like Moena’s favourite porn star: faded jeans, tight white T-shirt, cinnamon-bark skin, boyish black curls. She admired the image on her tablet, fed from the door camera. Too bad she couldn’t touch him. Her face flushed. The space between her legs tightened. Not now, and not him, idiot body. Not any man or woman infested with outside microbiota.
She slapped her cheeks lightly and blew out a hot breath.
Syed – her outside man – was away at his second cousin’s wedding in Mysore. She would have to deal with Rahul herself.
“Please wait there,” she said, a delayed audio reply to his intercom buzz.
Moena opened the supply closet and grimaced at the grey isolation suit hanging in the back. It reeked of industrial plastic and factory esters. She grabbed a handful of soil from the floor and sprinkled it into the suit. Then she pulled it and the air mask on.
She stepped into the airlocked foyer, clinched the inner door seals, and walked out the front. To his credit, Rahul only took a half-step back. His dark eyes widened like a bud opening to rain. Questions sprouted and withered on his lips – parted to show endearingly crooked teeth – until he said, “Miss... Sivaram?’
“Yes. Follow me, please,” Moena said.
She led him across the weedy, barren dirt of her lot. They walked around the thick clay walls of the house to arrive at the faulty SmartWindow. Rahul attached his computer to it via a long cable, vine-like but for its grey colour. He sat on the dirt and began typing.
“The light and air filters are set to opposite extremes,” he said. He spoke English in the well-rounded tones of an educated, middle-class Indian. “Most people use these windows to reduce the ultraviolet while permitting air circulation into the house.”
I am not most people. Out loud: “You don’t talk like a repairman.”
Rahul smiled. “I’m an FAE – a field applications engineer. We repair but we also have technical backgrounds. He paused, squinted up at her. “Tell me, are you the Moena Sivaram?”
Tendrils of anxiety coiled in Moena’s stomach. The plane crash that killed her parents had been well publicised, but the story had faded from the news years ago. Why would this man jab her with a question about it?
“Your thesis on fresh water bioremediation was incredible. How come you haven’t published any papers since then?”
Moena gaped behind the mask. “Just who are you?”
‘Sorry, I should have explained. I’m a volunteer with Hariharan Ecological Group. They’ve taken your design and used it to treat local water pollution. It’s been a great success. You’re famous among us. I thought, perhaps, you might be running a laboratory in the house, what with these window settings.”
Moena reeled at the orthogonality of the question and stared at her reflection in the SmartWindow. Her suit resembled the spent husk of a chrysalis. If only she could emerge a gorgeous butterfly, she could stun Rahul into silence as well.
“I am conducting experiments in the house,” she admitted. “I wear this suit to keep the environment as isolated as I can.”
“Could I – I mean, if it’s not too much trouble – could I see what you’re doing?”
Moena shook her head like a leaf frenzied by the wind.
Rahul...inside her house? Inside her? Possibilities tumbled in her mind, gorgeous and terrifying. Impossible!
“No, of course not.” He turned back to his computer. “Sorry for asking.”
Moena reached out to him, drew her hand back. She had no right to his body.
The afternoon sun blazed from high in the summer sky as the silence stretched. Heat built inside Moena’s isolation suit. Her shirt clung to her torso. Rivulets of sweat trickled down her neck and collected at the waistband of her shorts. She sat still, channelling the atman of a tree stump.
“Aha!” Rahul said at last.
The window cleared to perfect transparency. Rahul reinstalled it and stowed his computer. He handed her a memory cube.
“You’ll want to update all of the windows with this version of software. The problem is that your filter settings are below virus size. The old software kept getting stuck in an interrupt routine and eventually hanging. This version should prevent that from happening.”
“Thank you,” Moena said. Part of her wished every window would fail, once a week, so Rahul would come again.
“The company will bill you directly. Best of luck with the research.”
Moena nodded. The mask bobbled. Rahul walked out of the front gate, latching it closed behind him. She was alone. The sterilisation wash in her foyer had never felt so tedious.
Once she was fully inside, Moena yanked off the mask and took several deep, relieving breaths. She peeled away the sweaty suit, let it crumple to the floor.
Soil wormed into the gaps between her bare toes. Leaves and fronds brushed her hands as she walked – nearly ran – to her bedroom. It looked much as it had when her parents were alive: a single bed, a narrow wardrobe painted yellow, a matching desk with shelves above it. The coffin was the exception.
The adult-sized container lay between the bed and the room’s boarded-up window. The device’s actual name was “Virtual Reality Recumbent Booth”, but the world had decided that was too unwieldy. Moena agreed.
She browsed the preset visuals under “male”. This one had beetle brows. That one was too pale. Dozens had overlays with blue eyes and blond hair. She stopped at a face that was close enough to Rahul’s. The hair needed more curl and the eyes wanted to be smaller, but she could adjust those when her body wasn’t pulsing with need.
The coffin’s interior walls cosied up to her, running its – his – hands over her body, blowing warm breath against her neck, pressing itself – himself! – into her empty spaces.
Tension wanted release, but Moena’s mind refused to fall into the illusion. She cut the session short.
What would a lover feel like, for real? She shivered. Think of the microflora! The exchange of so much more than fluid. And where would it happen? Here, in her bed? In the sanctum of her home? The biome would be corrupted, and her hard work set back by years. Idiot! Forget him!
But Rahul persisted in her thoughts, like a splinter that wormed deeper the more she tried to pry it out. Moena called the only friend left from her outside days: her fellow graduate student, now Professor Das.
Ananya’s broad brown face appeared on the tablet screen accompanied by the clamour of children.
“Let me get somewhere quiet.”
“You have to save me,” Moena said, after her friend relocated.
Ananya cocked an eyebrow. “Do you need some new cultures?”
“No. Bacteria can’t help me. I’ve been infected by a man, a glorious specimen of male Homo sapiens!”
“Infected? What? Did you have sex with someone?”
Excerpted with permission from Contingency Plans For The Apocalypse And Other Possible Situations, SB Divya, Hachette India.