UV (Part 2) - Trey and Suzan
Tuesday, 6.30pm. The streets of the Capital were almost deserted; some of the city’s younger citizens were taking respite from the heat in the cool subterranean network of tunnels, socialising on the air-conditioned trains, but Trey Johnson easily found a seat. All around him glowing digital information screens indicated that exterior UV levels were high.
Stations passed in a blur of brushed steel and concrete; holographic billboards advertising the latest virtual reality musicals or announcing Ministry safety warnings; passengers boarding and alighting. Trey rarely looked up from the bulletins he was reading on his i-Life’s screen to observe the people around him, but when he did so, he saw a couple opposite sharing music, their heads close together and lips moving in unison, miming the songs’ lyrics in a silent karaoke. Further along the carriage, a group of teenagers shared snacks, pausing from texting to pass the bag of spicy soy chips between them. One shoveled handfuls into his mouth open-palmed, as he continued to thumb the keypad with his other hand, his eyes glazed, mouth working in lazy circles.
Trey had chosen a restaurant in Zone 2 for his date with Suzan, as he didn’t want to pay extra for a centre permit. The Capital’s central district was enclosed in a protective glass biodome, which blocked out the sun’s harmful rays, but this meant that everything there was at a premium. It would only be a journey of two zones from the apartment where he lived with his parents. Suzan lived in Zone 4 too, in a flat share north of the river. He would sometimes tease her about being a “northerner” when they interacted at work; which he thought had a nostalgic ring to it and made him sound more interesting.
In the days building up to asking Suzan out, Trey had studied maps of the transport system, trying to choose a location equidistant between their homes. He had considered somewhere close to their office, but Suzan was always complaining about her commute; having to change trains and travelling part of the way on a line without Life-i. The schematic map looked like an onion sliced in cross-section, Trey thought, which made it difficult to estimate how far away Suzan lived from their office. So he selected a line that he knew was fully modernised and mentally intersected it at the halfway point – Stepney Green.
Trey was grateful that his parents could afford to live inside the Red Ring, which would be like the skin of the onion, if you were to take the analogy further. He tried to remember what lay beyond this outer cordon, but his parents said it was best not to talk about it – what was gone, was gone. Though he sometimes had a vision of an expanse of green and neat fields spreading out to the horizon, hemmed in by a biodiversity of trees he didn’t recognise, which he supposed must be a childhood memory or perhaps something he’d seen in a movie. In any case, such fields were unnecessary now, as all their nutri-needs were provided by the city’s LabFarms, like Vitro-Meat™, the corporation which employed Trey and Suzan in their marketing division.
Trey felt a little nervous as he stepped onto the gleaming metallic platform at Stepney Green. He’d never been here before, but the words put him in mind of his waking dream of fields and trees, which he took as a good omen. They had arranged to meet outside the V-EAT, which, according to its website, was a fully modernised restaurant serving Vitro-Meat™ cuisine.
As Trey strolled along White Horse Way, he observed restaurant diners behind the smoked plate glass windows lining the pavement, their mouths opening automatically as they absent-mindedly inserted food from forks or chopsticks. He passed a burger bar, which advertised their Vitro-Meat™ steaks with a slogan he had created: “Vitro-Steak - the beefy slab that’s grown in a lab” and felt a glow of pride. Inside, the clientele chomped on the cultured meat burgers and chargrilled Vitro-Steak™ sandwiches with obvious relish, mouths gaping wide and jaws gyrating, as they dabbed at greasy lips with paper napkins. He made a mental note to consider this place for a second date with Suzan; it was fully modernised, with docking stations, so that they could watch a movie together while they were eating. Most of the diners had i-Life screens in front of them, sitting side-by-side, their faces illuminated electric blue within the darkened interior.
Suzan was early, he noted happily; that must mean that she was keen. She was standing outside the restaurant dressed in a silver UV-Suit, engrossed in her i-Life, thumbs working quickly on the keypad, head bent forward at the neck, so that her body formed a question mark. Was she texting or gaming, he wondered, but then felt a familiar vibration in his trouser pocket. A message from Suzan:
“Where are you? Question-face emoji.”
He texted back a “look up” symbol, timed to arrive just as he did. She smiled and lifted her visor for him to kiss her cheek and her i-Life again. Trey’s puckered lips met Susan’s soft, oily, neon skin, and at the exact same moment, the screen in her hand glowed with a heart-eyed kiss-face emoji.
The doors opened with a pneumatic hiss as Trey allowed Suzan to lead the way into the restaurant. The interior was filled with a soft amber light from the tinted windows and along rows of faux wood benches, diners perched on bar stools, their faces lambent with bluish radiance. The customers sat on one side of the table, with their devices in the docking stations opposite. Trey scanned the room for a waiter, hoping that it wasn’t a self-service restaurant; he thought that table service would lend the occasion a more romantic ambience.
At last a waitress approached them, a wide smile fixed across her symmetrical synthetic features. Trey confirmed their reservation and watched the android glide ahead of them to a table near the window. She gestured to their bar stools with a slight jerk of her wrist and indicated that they should dock their i-Lifes. As they did so, Trey and Suzan’s phones burst into life and the words V-EAT MENU scrolled across them. The waitress delivered her lines in synthesised tones:
“Hello, I’m Tweety, your host for this evening. Today’s special is kelp vermicelli V-Chick Bun Ga Nuong, served with salted edamame beans and a finger lime dressing. May I take your drinks order?”
Trey ordered a GM tomato juice for himself and kombucha for Suzan and the waitress left them to study the choices on offer.
Suzan lifted her right hand and read some figures from the digital device hidden beneath her sleeve.
“I need some protein to fulfil today’s nutri-needs, so I think I’ll treat my body to the cricket flour V-Prawn dumplings, with a side of kimchi,” she said.
Trey’s heart sank a little, as she’d chosen one of the most expensive dishes on the menu. Since the mortality event, all seafood had to be grown in laboratories.
“I’ll have the seitan dakkoti V-Chick skewers with kelp ramen,” he told Tweety, after Suzan had placed her order, and they settled down together to watch some hilarious Vlogs. The laughed together at the slapstick videos of people making themselves vomit by eating disgusting Old World foods or setting things on fire with lenses and sun’s rays, though Trey couldn't resist stealing occasional glances of Suzan’s sublime profile. Her cosmetically enhanced features were all gleaming neon; her nose was tiny, planed to a perfect point, and her lips were plump and glossy as GM cherries. She was so perfect. Trey decided that she could easily pass for an android.
Tweetie arrived with the steaming bowls of food. Suzan's dumplings floated like pale jellyfish in a sea of fragrant broth and she had to chase them with her chopsticks. Trey watched as she bit into one, her even white teeth revealing a bright pink centre of cultured prawn. She offered a slippery parcel to Trey, holding it in a pincer grip, just out of his reach, and he made an exaggerated game of stealing it from her.
Trey had never seen the sea, but his own food resembled a rock pool; the green kelp noodles swam in a briny soup, with fronds of shredded spring onion and tiny starfish of GM carrot. He lifted a skewer of white mock chicken to his mouth and the soft fake flesh yielded easily to him.
Suzan’s plump red lips were slick with juices and he reached to dab the grease from them with his napkin, wishing that he dared to kiss them instead, but she turned to look at the i-Life phone again, laughing at some Vlogger silently clowning around. They hadn’t bothered with earphones, yet they had hardly exchanged a word, and all along the bench at which they sat, similar interactions were taking place: couples transfixed by their i-Life devices, holding them to text, or watching videos, distractedly eating, while ignoring their partners.
“Did you enjoy that?” Trey asked Suzan, as she pushed away her empty bowl, then checked her wrist device to count the calories.
“It was delicious, but I can’t afford a dessert,” she responded, while stroking a tiny hand over her concave, silver clad abdomen.
“In that case, I won’t either,” Trey said in a show of solidarity. Though he’d done an hour of cross training before work that morning and would have liked one. He flexed a bicep, in what he hoped was a subtle manoeuvre. “Must maintain the body beautiful,” he said, as he lifted Suzan down from her stool with the grace of a ballet dancer.
Outside in the street, they checked their i-Lifes for bars in the area and decided on a five-star Tiki Bar on the other side of the road. Just as they stepped off the kerb, a motorbike swerved to avoid them, causing Suzan to fall backwards into the gutter. Trey swore as the bike carried on at speed and lifted his i-Life to capture motorcyclist's registration number.