Illustration of person in a white shirt. A caption beside the image says ISOLATION: They want us to keep hoping that one day we'll be free from our isolated glass cells, but it's a lie. I know we'll never get out.

The bile that filled the back of her throat soured her mouth. She stepped forward, putting her palm on the glass wall and pressing her forehead on the cool glass. The other five lab personnel were also leaning on the thick glass of their isolated cells, staring at the two parallel corridors leading to the test room. The young couple, a girl and a boy, walked heavily and slowly from their separate glass corridors towards the room. Sayehsympathized with them, wanting to take their steps as slowly as possible. It was not easy walking towards their own killing floor. The girl and the boy -the chosen test subjects of the day- knew that their survival chance was too low. No numbers and statistics were needed to know they would probably die in the test room. Until nine days ago, demolition robots removed all the couples that stepped into the test room. The young couple must have known that, Sayeh thought to herself, which was why they were scared to take their eyes from the floor and even glimpse at each other. Since they turned eighteen, they had witnessed pairs of friends go to the test room every day and never return. The last nine couples had not returned to their dorms and were transferred to an unknown destination. The one-way path made each of their steps heavy and hard to take.

Unlike the young couple, Sayeh was not born with a viable gene. All the babies were genetically tampered with in the incubators, but until their birth, it was impossible to determine whether the modified genes were activated correctly. Those born with an activated, modified gene were sent to lab dorms, and the genetic tests would start immediately. The rest would be sent to public dorms to grow up in separate glass cell dorms and eventually become trained for a needed profession based on their genetic capability. What awaited them after they passed adolescence was more glass cells, but this time, personal isolated cells that they would live in for the rest of their lives.

The susceptible babies of the lab would hardly pass all the tests over the years and make it to the age of eighteen. If they did, like the couple that Sayeh was witnessing, they would become candidates for the final confrontation test in the test room where Sayeh was pressing her forehead to its external glass wall. Until nine days ago, Sayeh thought she was lucky not to have been born with an activated gene. But the last few days, even though she was not still sure that the test results were definitive, she felt a sense of deep regret. Until now, all she ever wanted and truly wished for, like all the other citizens of the glass city, was for the tests to yield positive results finally and for the next generation of what remained of the human race to become free of isolated glass cells. Being a part of history’s most remarkable turning point was not a small accomplishment. Sayeh and her team would be rewarded if the test results were definitive. But the tremendous success, which was now unbelievably reachable, felt more like a lump of sorrow that blocked her throat.

The boy and the girl were a few steps away from the test room door, their legs shaking under their baggy cotton trousers. Sayeh looked at her watch. The test was taking longer than expected, and there was nothing she could do to make the test subjects walk faster. But she was late for her date with Kamran, who, unlike Sayeh, worked the night shift. They only had an hour between the end of Sayeh’s shift and the start of Kamran’s night shift, and she had already missed ten minutes of that precious time. She stepped back from the glass wall and turned on her VD.

“I’ll be late. Sorry!” She sent a voice message to Kamran.

Kamran replied instantly: “It’s OK. Where?”

“The usual place, but in 15 min,” Sayeh replied and leaned forward again on the glass wall.

The test room doors were opening. If the tenth test was successful, they would release the test results that night. The whole glass city would probably celebrate their success in real halls and virtual rooms. It was a great deal, finally a breakthrough that would change the course of history. They would most likely cancel the night shift so everyone could participate in the celebrations. She wasn’t sure which was more important to her, spending more time with Kamran or that she was about to achieve the final success. Right now, all she wanted was for the boy and the girl to leave the test room alive. She shut her eyes as she always did during the test. Being the head of the final confrontation test for the last five years, it had never become easy watching them fail in the final test. Even though all their previous tests suggested they would survive being exposed to another human’s DNA, their brains still identified the other DNA as an allergen, and their bodies would go into anaphylaxis shock. Upon exposure, they would go into seizures, fall on the ground, mouths foaming, and their hearts and lungs would fail after continuous tremors. That was the point Sayeh would call for the demolition robots. But in the last nine days, things  had changed. Sayeh had witnessed with her own eyes how two test subjects touched each other’s fingers, looked each other in the eye and continued touching their partner’s neck, head and arms, and in one case, the couple hugged! Could she see this again today? What was the chance, statistically? 50-50, less or more?

She couldn’t control her eyelids or tense fingers that wanted to cling to the glass wall. She took a deep breath and tried to make out the sounds. Hearing the sound of two trembling bodies was easier than watching it. She heard the test room door open and her assistant ordering the test subjects to enter the room, stand in front of each other and reach out to hold hands. She couldn’t stand it anymore. She turned around with her eyes shut and leaned back on the wall, sharpening her hearing for their first touch… there was no sound of bodies falling on the floor; she heard her colleagues sighing with relief from their isolated cells. She turned back and slowly opened her eyes. The girl was touching the boy with her fingertips, and the boy was caressing the girl’s long hair. There was a tear coming out of the girl’s eye. The boy caught the tear on her face before it rolled down her cheek. They both smiled, and for the second time, Sayeh saw two human beings hugging each other. The green alarm filled the rooms, followed by the cheering sound of her personnel jumping up and down with excitement, awe and joy. The tests were finally admissible, and, according to the last ten experiments, the previous ten couples were immune to human DNA. The human race would be free of the isolated glass cells after two hundred years. Humans could take refuge in another person’s embrace.

Sayeh exhaled her deep breath and wiped off her joyful tears. They didn’t need demolition robots, and her colleagues would transfer the couple to the completion test rooms. Her assistant was already filing the report. She looked at her watch and thought she still had time. She congratulated her team and set off to the hatch of her cell. She opened the hatch and sat in the round silver car. The doors of the auto car closed and sealed to become isolated, and it started riding. The path was predetermined. The car would leave the lab area, go down eighteen floors to the main route, and go up to the fifteenth floor to the dorm cells again. Sayeh wished the car would move slower so she could gaze at the people living in their isolated glass cells. No sound came out of the cells, but people did the routine things, pretty much the same. They were either resting, eating, exercising, or taking a piss in the only covered area of their cells. Most of the time, they lie on their VR beds, working or having fun in virtual reality.

She heard her VD’s notification. It was Kamran’s voice message.

“I’m in the usual place waiting for you…the night shift is probably suspended. Take your time!” His voice was excited. Sayeh didn’t reply. The car had arrived at her cell and was pairing with her hatch. Sayeh waited for the car system to check for any leakages and announced SAFE to enter her cell. The hatch door closed behind her. Sayeh ran towards her VR bed. She hadn’t put on her VR headset when she heard the food distributing robot putting her plate on her cell box. After checking for any leakages, the robot announced SAFE again and cautioned the cell resident to eat her food. But Sayeh was too excited to eat. She disregarded the food plate in her cell box and put on her VR headset. She chose a black middy dress for her avatar and added some of her virtual belongings to her bag. She ordered to be taken to the old Tehran Café, where they had their first date and had since turned into their usual favorite place.

Kamran was sitting behind a wooden table, under a staircase:a quiet and dim place. He was wearing a dark blue shirt, and Sayeh couldn’t see his trousers from there. With a smile on his face, he was busy watching something on the internal VR tablet. He got up from the polished chair as he saw Sayeh approaching, careful not to hit his head on the staircase. Sayeh couldn’t control herself anymore. She burst into tears and threw herself into Kamran’s arm.

“Shhh… It’s OK! Everything is going to be Ok! Now with this good news…” He tried to calm her, pressing her head on his chest and kissing her forehead.

He helped her sit on a chair in front of him.

“Do you want to change your sensor settings?” Kamran asked.

“What for? So that I don’t feel down when I’m with you? You want me not to be myself… to keep my misery for my long hours of isolation in my cell and be happy when I’m with you?” Sayeh replied with a frown.

“I didn’t mean that.” Kamran apologized. “It’s just… I thought you’d be very pleased now! The news coverage is on you and your great success! There are even proposals to  name this date after your research team. Imagine that? There’s going to be a calendar day named after you.” He paused and continued with a shaky voice: “The night shift is suspended. We can be together all night! You’re not happy?”

“I am…” said Sayeh, with her head down. She paused and continued.

“It’s just… this date should be named after all the girls and boys that sacrificed their lives over these years and the scientists and lab personnel who lost their lives due to contaminations… like Sima.” And she burst into tears again. “We forget so soon… it was just a week ago that we lost her.” She was trembling.

Kamran took her hand and tried to calm her down.

“It’s not your fault. It never was…, and besides, all of them are heroes as long as their sacrifices have finally been rewarded. Wouldn’t it be worst if all they gave was for nothing? Look at it this way. You made their sacrifices yield to something great; you made their deaths meaningful.” Kamran said in a reassuring tone.

Sayeh was feeling better but a little hungry. She should have eaten her food before coming to the VR. The VR setting was designed not to eliminate the feeling of thirst and hunger. Too many lives were lost to the VR by the people who spent days in it and forgot that they had to eat and drink in the real world. That’s why they had to set a new rule. Eating and drinking in the VR would give the pleasure of the taste but not take away the feeling of thirst and hunger.

Kamran asked: “What are you having?” and called for the AI waiter, a good-looking young man with long hair tied behind his head wearing a blue apron over his oversized black T-shirt.

“Coffee, please!” Sayeh said to the waiter. The human avatar AI waiter was one of the options that distinguished this café. She preferred it to the digital menus of most VR places. Kamran ordered too, and the waitress wrote down their order on a tablet he was holding. Sayeh stared at the waiter’s tattoos, too many of them on his hand, but she couldn’t quite make out the shapes. The waitress went behind the café counter.

Kamran turned to Sayeh: “Are you feeling better?”

Sayeh was staring at the empty space where the waiter was standing a few seconds ago. She turned to Kamran, asking: “What do you think is going to happen?”

Kamran started talking, with a shine in his eye: “The complementary tests will be done soon and man can live side by side with his kind… to have children born again the natural way… and all this is thanks to your hard work! You should really be proud right now!”

Sayeh didn’t want to continue. She didn’t feel proud. She didn’t think she had a greater share of this success than anyone else did. All she felt was sadness, a deep, vast regret. The hard, long work had paid off, but too late for those who were already lost in the process and too late for her.

“We won’t be here then to see it through. It has taken 180 years to get to where we are now…” she said bitterly and looked down again.

The waiter returned with a cup of coffee and a glass of red wine and put the ordered drinks on the table. Sayeh was careful not to get lost in the boy’s tattoo designs. Kamran took out a packet of cigarettes from his shirt pocket and looked inside the half-empty pack. He lit one and stared at the smoke fading in the dim light of the café. Cigarettes were one of the most expensive items one could buy in VR. Sayeh could never afford them, and when Kamran offered her one, she took it with gratitude. She enjoyed the pleasure of smoking in a few minutes of silence.

Kamran had a much higher salary than she did. He worked in the lab’s maintenance. Most days, he worked from his cell, checking and controlling the air conditioning of the labs. But sometimes, he had to come down in person to check the malfunctioning pipes and valves. Sayeh first saw him on the lab floor, where he was inspecting a leaking pipe. It was quite a delicate matter of infection spreading throughout the whole lab room, one that robots were not wholly reliable to handle. They had called in all the maintenance team, the day and night shifts. They had to recheck everything after the leakage was stopped and the whole air was purified. Kamran had come too. Everyone had to wear isolation suits for emergencies like that day. Sayeh and Kamran were both wearing one. Still, Sayeh could make out Kamran’s broad shoulders and tall height through the three layers of nano-polymer of the isolation suit. That night they met at the old Tehran Café in VR. It wasn’t the right thing to do. Everyone knew dating people from the opposite working shift would not work out. The last few months had been hard for both of them. They only had half to one hour together, and since this time was not enough to have sex, they would just spend it talking to each other. Sayeh would shortly meet up with Kamran after her work shift and then spend long hours of the afternoon dwelling alone in her cell. Kamran was all alone in the mornings, waiting to catch up with Sayeh before his shift started.

Sayeh wanted to end the relationship. They could meet new people with whom they could spend all their non-working hours, but she couldn’t let go of him. Kamran replied that he was OK with Sayeh seeing others but didn’t want to break up with her. Sayeh didn’t want anyone else but Kamran; she wanted him to be there for her. She wanted the impossible, to have him physically by her side, all the time. But all they could do was work hard and earn VR access credits. Otherwise, they would lose their short time together in the VR.

“Shall we go to a private room?” Kamran suggested.

“No!” answered Sayeh with a bold tone. “I can’t, and I don’t want to. How many times do I have to explain?”

“But why? I may not get a shift off any time soon.” Kamran insisted.

“I’ve already told you before… because then, I wouldn’t be able to bear it without you by my side. It will be hard for both of us… staying apart. It could affect us, affect our work performance….” Sayeh explained.

“We could pretend it’s not real, just for one night… it’s just a virtual thing like the rest of our lives.” Kamran answered.

Sayeh drank her coffee. “It may not be real, but our feelings are real. Trust me in this. If we have sex, we’ll feel sad being apart.”

She paused and continued, “I wouldn’t care to have a one-night stand like I had had many times before I met you. But with you, it’s different. I’m afraid the more I’m with you, the more intimate we get; being apart from you becomes harder and more painful. It could hurt us both.”

“I’m hurting now!” Kamran said, biting the corner of his lips.

“Then I better leave. I prefer to know that I have fallen in love once in my life, the only real thing that has happened to me… the only real feeling that makes me seem like a human.” Sayeh said, getting up from her chair.

Kamran took her hand and made her sit back again.

“Don’t go… please. Being close to you is enough for me,” he said.

But Sayeh stood up again: “Let’s go for a walk!”

“Where?” Kamran asked as he got up.

“Not in the VR!” Sayeh replied.

“But you hated the public halls?” Kamran said, surprised.

“Not there… I still hate those halls.” Sayeh clarified.

“Where then?” Kamran asked, puzzled.

“Let’s go to the lab. There’s no one there.” Said Sayeh.

“But we still have to wear isolation suits if we want to go together,” Kamran explained.

“Still… it would feel more real… closer… don’t you think?” Sayeh insisted.

“OK then. I’ll meet you there in an hour.” Kamran suggested.

“No!” said Sayeh boldly. “Let’s go now!” and she walked to the café door and exited the VR.

She put her VR headset on her bed and went to the corner of her cell to reach her isolation suit. The food plate was still in her cell box, untouched. She put on her suit over her white cotton overall and checked the suit for any possible leakages. She went to the hatch and sat in her car. On the way to the lab, she checked her messages on her VD. Most of them congratulated Sayeh, and she had an invitation for a news conference and the celebrations afterwards in the VR city hall. She didn’t reply to any of the messages. She checked the lab’s CCTV cameras just to ensure no one was there and ordered her car to stop at the final test room corridors. She sent the same order to Kamran’s car. They both had access to the test corridors since they both worked there, and Sayeh was not worried.

She got off the car and entered one of the two parallel corridors, the same glass corridor used daily to bring young couples to the final confrontation test room, to their death. As soon as she entered the hall, the automatic isolation system of the corridor was activated. She took off her isolation suit and stood by the corridor door with her thin layer of cotton overall. Kamran’s car arrived. She told Kamran to enter the parallel corridor and take off his isolation suit. Kamran pressed his helmet button and slowly took it off. He then unzipped his suit and, taking out his arms from his sleeves, gently bent and pulled down his suit, all the time, Sayeh stared at him. He finally pulled up his legs from the suit and stood up. He rolled his fingers through his brown hair and stepped towards the glass corridor wall, towards Sayeh.

Unlike his VR avatar, he had stubble on his face and looked older with wrinkles around his eyes and forehead, all the facial features that VR avatars would filter. He was more handsome in reality than his retouched avatar. Sayeh updated her avatar every once in a while to add her newly formed wrinkles and grey hairs. She believed every single change in her face was not just a trace of her aging but was caused due to the pain and stress of watching so many people die before her eyes. She thought the wrinkles demonstrated the more human part of her.

Kamran stood in front of her, on the other side of the glass wall.

“If we get caught, we’ll be in trouble!” he said in a worried tone. He was twice as tall as Sayeh.

“Isn’t it worth it?” Sayeh asked.

Kamran nodded: “You are so beautiful!”

Sayeh placed her palm on the glass wall. She wanted to touch Kamran’s torso. She then slid her hand up towards Kamran’s face. Kamran put his hand across hers, trying to mirror Sayeh’s movement.

Sayeh sighed: “They enter from these corridors and walk to the test room… they touch their fingertips first….” And tried to imitate what she had seen that day in the lab, but the glass wall was in her way.

They both looked down for a few seconds.

“You know! We can never experience it… the touch! Even if all the complimentary tests are affirmative. It’s past us. We don’t have an activated gene….” Sayeh said with a sad tone.

Kamran disrupted her: “They might find a way to cure our genes if they find out what exactly causes this allergic reaction to human DNA.” He sounded hopeful.

Sayeh shook her head: “This is the lie they have been telling us… to make us believe we may one day be free of our glass cells. It’s a false hope, and I know that it’s impossible… it’s my job to know.”

Kamran became silent; his brown eyes were covered with a layer of bitter tears.

Sayeh finally said what she wanted to say all along since their meetup in the VR cafe: “This is what upsets me. Until now, we were all the same; we all had a common condition that we had accepted as our way of life. We thought that’s what being human is, a species that was allergic to its own kind and touching another human would kill us.” She slid her hand on the glass wall as she spoke and stepped sideways towards the test room. Kamran mirrored her movement.

“But now that we know it could have been possible to touch each other outside of the VR, to smell, to kiss….” She continued and took another step, with Kamran following her lead.

“Why are we deprived of it forever?” she asked.

Kamran seemed mesmerized by Sayeh’s voice from behind the glass. He listened but didn’t say anything. Staring at her, he mimicked her every move and step.

Finally, they were at the test room door.

“Shall we head back now?” Kamran asked.

Sayeh ignored his question and his worried tone. She opened the test room door and asked: “Don’t you want to feel it? Just one time?”

“feel what?” Kamran asked shockingly.

“Feel US”, Sayeh replied in a cold tone.

Kamran shouted: “Are you out of your mind? We’ll die!”

“But isn’t it worth it?” Sayeh asked, still in a cold tone.

“Of course NOT! We’ll die, Sayeh! I prefer to live… even if it means I have to suffer and be separated from you.”

 But Sayeh ignored him. She entered the test room from her corridor and stood by the door that opened to Kamran’s corridor. Kamran seemed shaky as if he was hardly keeping his balance not to fall down.

“I don’t want to… and I can’t.” Kamran insisted as he turned his back on Sayeh and started to walk back towards the corridor door where his car was waiting. His quick steps had not yet turned into running speed when Sayeh opened the door between the test room and Kamran’s corridor. The alarm set off, announcing a warning of DNA contamination.

It was already too late. Kamran stopped and turned back. Sayeh was approaching him.

“You killed me! You killed us both!” He said in a shivering voice.

“We still have time… a few more seconds… maybe a few minutes,” Sayeh said, standing in front of him. She stretched her arm and touched Kamran’s sweaty face. The VR avatars never showed sweat, nor did she ever see someone sweat behind their isolation suits. She gently moved her fingertips along Kamran’s wrinkles; the straight parallel lines stretched along his forehead and softly touched his moist, stubbled skin.

Kamran stared into her eyes and mirrored her movements again, tenderly touching Sayeh’s face. Sayeh felt something that she had never felt before, as if she was feeling herself for the first time, feeling the world, feeling truly alive. She took Kamran’s hand, but Kamran brought up Sayeh’s hand and put it against his lips. He, too, seemed eager to embrace the present, the short time he had left, and fill it with all the joy possible, the pure awareness of being alive. He kissed her hand, and just then, Sayeh’s body began to fail, and she dropped to the floor. She could still see and hear, although she could not calm the tremors that rapidly shook her whole body and couldn’t keep the air in her lungs. She saw Kamran sitting by her trembling body.

Kamran wiped the foam coming out of Sayeh’s mouth with his sweaty hands and bent over her. He pressed his lips on Sayeh’s and wrapped her body in his arms. His tears rolled down Sayeh’s face and hair. The contamination alarm was still ringing. Sayeh tried to smile as the last thing she wanted to do. She knew that Kamran’s colleagues would arrive soon to control the contamination, and they would find her dead body. She wanted her face to tell them she was happy and satisfied in the last seconds of her life.

She was proud since her last experiment, the one unplanned and uncalculated, had yielded an unimaginable result. Kamran had survived it.


“Isolation was originally published in Farsi in Time Rider, a collection of Speculative Short stories by Zoha Kazemi, Tandis Books, Iran.

“Isolation” illustration is by Mahour Pourghadim.

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