This story is by Ichabod Ebenezer and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Chocolate protein shake. Again. But what if he added a little powdered ginger to change things up?
George found the ginger in his improvised spice rack, added several shakes to his glass, then turned toward the blender.
A woman in a crimson pencil skirt suit and horn-rimmed glasses stood just across the kitchenette. “Oh, geez!” George said, managing to catch his glass, but spilling most of its contents.
“Terribly sorry, George. Did you forget we had an appointment?”
“I,” he started, then paused to lick a line of shake dripping over his fingers. “I guess I did.”
He set the glass in his sink and folded his arms in an attempt at nonchalance. “Is it really Monday already?”
Dr. Watkins smiled. “Losing track of time is actually a good sign. It means you’re adjusting to the isolation.”
George scratched at the back of his unwashed hair, then sniffed at his sleeve as he caught the stench. “Adjusting? To be honest, I keep catching myself in the middle of conversations before I remember nobody is there.”
Dr. Watkins’ smile never wavered. “That’s to be expected. The human brain thrives on social interaction. You are bound to invent a few companions. Remember what I told you about starting a garden? Talking to your plants can be beneficial to both you and them.”
He came around the island. “I did. A-and it worked—at least at first. It’s just that it’s hard to eat a carrot you’ve bared your soul to.” He got a faraway look. “Her name was Mary.”
The psychiatrist’s face fell. “No, that’s not—I think you’ve misunderstood…” She shook her head. “You know what? Let’s try some writing instead this week. I’ll arrange to have some prompts and motivational messages sent to your inbox daily. How does that sound?”
George put his hands in his pockets and cast his eyes toward the ground. “I mean, I guess I’ll try it. No one’s gonna read it, right?”
“Not a soul, George. Unless you decide to share it.” He met her eyes, and she smiled again. “Good. Well, this was just a quick check-in today. I’ll visit again next Monday. As always, I would like to thank you for your self-isolation while we eradicate the Spore. We know this is difficult, but it is vital to the survival of mankind. Thank you. And, George, do set an alarm. A shower and shave before my visits will do wonders for your dignity.”
“Wait! You can’t go yet!” George reached for Dr. Watkin’s arm, but stopped himself. Then his eyes brightened. “I did some painting. You should see it, right? I mean, there’s stuff about my psyche that you can glean from every brushstroke, right? Please?”
Dr. Watkins frowned and looked at her watch. “George, there are reasons we limit our time. If you recall—”
“Please. Just two more minutes.”
She stared at him, silent for several tense moments. He bit his tongue to keep from saying more. It was a delicate balance; desperate enough to gain her sympathy, but not so much as to scare her off.
“Alright, George. One painting.” She held up a finger for emphasis.
“Yeah, absolutely.” He stepped around her and went to his home’s control panel, pressing several buttons.
The lighting came up to daytime levels, and his unmade bed sank into the floor while a glass coffee table and a deeply-cushioned chair rolled out of one wall. Across the room, a circular section of the floor corkscrewed upward, revealing an easel and canvas. George led Dr. Watkins around the front of the easel.
“What do you think?” George asked.
“It’s a rose, right?” she asked.
He smiled broadly. “I wasn’t sure I remembered it right. I mean, the Cloud is full of images and videos, it can even conjure up the smell of flowers, but that’s not how I remembered them. You know?”
“Because you were a child when everyone entered isolation. Your perspective has changed since then. These spots on the rose?” she asked, pointing. “Is that disease?”
“Oh, those are supposed to be dewdrops.” He grabbed a brush, added a dot of paint to a couple spots, and stepped back.
“It’s a lovely painting. I see memories of childhood, I see a longing for beauty, and I see hope. Overall, I see a well-adjusted man who is dealing with a situation of unprecedented difficulty.”
Nervousness fled his posture. “You have no idea what a relief it is to hear that. When it’s just me and my self-doubt, I think I’m going nuts.” He chuckled. “By Friday, I’ll be half certain I hallucinated you being here.”
“This is real, though. You know that, right?”
Putting out one arm, George waved his hand back and forth through the doctor. “Not entirely real…”
“This holographic projection is real.” Dr. Watkins pointed to the corners of the room. “You can see the projectors are active. The scent emitters in the ceiling are tracking my location. Your environmental controls are radiating warmth from this position. You won’t get any of that from a hallucination. Remember your lessons, and test your senses.”
“Yes, but later when it’s just me and my memory, it’s so much harder.”
“I understand that it’s difficult, and I sympathize. We can talk more about that next week—”
“Wait!” George said, looking at his watch. “I was just stalling with the painting. Really, I wanted to share an experience with you. Just one second.”
He ran back over to the control panel and pushed another button. One wall broke into sections and slid away, revealing the desert landscape beyond thick plexiglass floor-to-ceiling windows. The sun was just cresting over a nearby mountain ridge, throwing the landscape into a palate of warm colors from bright reds and golds to deep and secret browns.
“It’s beautiful, George. Thank you for sharing it with me. Now, I do have to go.”
“You see how long the shadows are now? Like, that rock is small enough to lift, but its shadow goes on and on…”
“The energy costs of maintaining this projection are prohibitive. Power is being diverted from gene banks, and the temperature is rising. I have to leave. Now.”
“I like to imagine it covered in plants again. Even desert flowers would be opening up to greet the sun on a morning like this.”
“I’m not going to be drawn into another conversation, George.”
“Of course, this far north it wasn’t a desert. Not until the Spore. Walking outside, barefoot, it would all be soft clover and berry bushes.”
“I highly recommend you turn your thoughts away from the outside. Treat it as a fairy tale. It doesn’t exist.”
“But why?” George said, throwing his paintbrush against the window. “I mean, I’m totally secure inside this house, right? Zero chance of a Spore getting in. Couldn’t someone invent a hermetically sealed vehicle that airlocks onto the house, or something?”
“We can look into it. I’m going to recommend a visit on Thursday as well, I think. Now tell me you’ll put the outside out of your mind.”
“I could get outside though, right? If I forced the situation? There has to be a failsafe, for a fire or whatever. If I tore this place apart, I bet I’d find one.”
“Stop right there, before I recommend sedation.”
George’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah, but you can’t keep me asleep, can you!”
“Promise me you won’t try to go outside! The Spore—”
“At least I’d breathe fresh air! At least I’d taste freedom!” Spit flew from his mouth as he raged.
“Perhaps you’ve forgotten how the Spore will kill you! From the moment you open the door, death is certain—”
“I know all that!” George said, breath coming rapidly.
“But it would eat you slowly! Painfully! You would have months to regret that moment’s lapse of—”
George slapped a button on his control panel, and the hologram fizzled out.
“Dr. Watkins?” George looked for her, fear in his heart. It took a moment to process that he had made her disappear. He looked from the button to his palm and laughed.
“You’re not in charge of me. I’m in charge! I have the control panel, and I can turn you off! How do you like them apples?”
A chime went off overhead, repeating at intervals. The holography button flashed.
He didn’t know there was a chime. Could she turn herself back on as well? Having demonstrated his power, he couldn’t bear the idea that she might prove it false. He pressed the blinking button and she reappeared.
“I apologize, George. I was in a hurry to leave, but I should have been more patient. You are going through something nobody in history could relate to, certainly not an AI like me. But please understand, you aren’t just you anymore. You carry the hopes of all humanity with you. One day we will eradicate the Spore, but it will take time. Have hope. You are, after all, the last living human.”