Chapter 1. ​​Talk about Today

When our earth lost three-quarters of the population, a daily commute trip could be a solitary one. The graveyard of the buses, government-issued or private ones, stared back at Stephanie mockingly silent as she was passing the pile of junks. A black drone flying nearby sent ripples of buzzing noise to her ears. A friend, indeed, like an eagle sent by the long-forgotten deities above to accompany a lone wanderer. 

The 10 am sun slowly made her sweat, the upper half of the collar of her crisp blue shirt felt damp. Cursing quietly, she continued walking past the Mampang Prapatan junction. Once pumped with life 24/7 as one of the busiest junctions leading to Gatot Subroto avenue that sundered the city part hosting business districts, the traffic lights were now dead. 

As a Companion whose job was to visit the Immune at their residences, she was beyond caring for the state of her city or electricity in many parts there. She might be late to reach her client’s place today. 

Rich countries spent billions of dollars to keep their lights illuminating the world map on energy consumption charts. Now, even without the annual Earth Hour, the overall wattage of electricity burnt was nothing. Unlike before when there were four times humans as many, that was.

The metropolitan that once housed the buzzing fifteen million people stood still without the usual busy scuttling of mid-morning hustlers. Trains to catch or buses to queue for pervaded everyone’s memory with their absence like a distant relative from someone’s summer a decade ago. What had happened to the traffic lights when no crowded streets chock brimming with smoke-farting motorcycles flock in front of the cars? The favourite Jakartans’ muscle memory reflex—honking soon after the light turned green instead of stepping on the gas, sounded as removed as Christmas from scorching May. 

Once merrily boisterous, now a graveyard of empty buses.

She gave up on the sun’s decision to be extra, and waded her way through the junks piling on the street. The hills of things people threw out the door decorated the view, reminiscent of the time when the sick kicked the bucket one by one while the remaining family members also toed on the brink of the afterlife. 

Bedframes and mattresses, tattered clothes after rain and sun, fossilised wet food trails from open plastic containers. She vomited on her first trip in this line of work. The sometimes dank, rancid, and bitter smells assaulted her, especially on the days after heavy rain. 

Today, she was lucky that it was lenient for her. It was around the same time as just shy of three years ago when the Ministry of Health issued an edict to render all human physical contact between the Protected people—those who were not Immune—forbidden. Boxing in people in grids, they decreed unnecessary journeys outside the designated space as violating the law.

Soon enough, Jakarta became far quieter. People who supported the economy continued to bear that status, the backbone, in silence inside their homes. A city of hidden living. And people like her who could still work outside did work outside, a privilege she paid for by catching some hushed talks and negative sentiments towards her job from the vine. But her motivation stemmed from merely exercising her chance to go out rather than obtaining some money these days.

She scrunched her nose to kick the pungent aroma of the rotten rubbish—it could be dead bodies lying in the shades of the unilluminated alleys for all she knew—out of her nostrils and concentrated on the list of names she had to visit that day. At times like this, she let her mind wander into an imaginary world where she took that job in the supply depot. But, no rest for one of the jobs providing comfort. 

She tightened her high ponytail that started to get saggier with each step. A glossy sheen covered the strands of her jet black hair, a mixture of oil and sweat. Her fringe hid dots of perspiration that started forming on her smooth forehead. Her grey ballerina flats continued treading past the intersection below the flyovers. Her manicured fingers, homemade after spending hours on YouTube and failing miserably at a few tries before redoing the whole thing, fished a smartphone out. She adjusted her rucksack grip on her shoulders before fumbling for something inside it. 

A notification lined the bottom of the control bar of her phone. It said there were no Rebellion outbreaks detected today. She used to read espionage novels or watch enough spy movies to recall the default scenes where snipers could lurk around you from the top of the buildings, aiming their long-range shots at your head. It was definitely not happening in this city these days. If the bus drivers and street bustlers weren’t even around, what odd might it be to stand within a vantage point of an assassin? 

No one else was there, the assassin might have just shot her point-blank. Unless some random groups planned for another civil unrest. But last time what they did with the “Save Economy” gang supposedly branded fear into people’s minds. What else you could expect from raining bullets on the demonstrators. 

She glanced at the line of parked buses, once a cheap and reliable public transport, now immobile like whale carcasses being drifted ashore. They stopped their journey left and right after that edict came out to protect the citizens from further infections, following dozens of other big countries. 

I might be late, she typed onto the chat feature on the app, notifying the client who booked her about her punctuality.

This was the second late message she sent this month. Not that her clients cared, as getting visited by someone who could literally walk the earth freely other than their housemates outweighed the quarter or half an hour they spent waiting. They wouldn’t know how hard a work commute was to rely only on an unreliable communal bus driver who went out and transported the Immune in bulk every six hours to the supply depots, to the government offices, to their destined cleaning spots, or just like her, to go to a client’s house. 

Or how it didn’t make sense to walk five kilometres to do her job, burning all the calories of her breakfast, just to see someone who would give her money to pay for the next food. She wished at waiting times like this, when she was occupied by her internal chatter, one of the buses in the graveyard was actually moving, coming to her at the nearby bus stop, and sending her to wherever she wanted.

But each job came with its ups and downs. It was her profession, working in a business she helped found, and she was glad to do it as someone among the Companions. That thought kept her content as she boarded the bus that finally stopped in front of her. 

Scanning the seats, only two other workers were on the same bus as her. The two men were dressed in plain cotton work shirts, one grey one blue, and khakis. Over the shirt, a vest with reflective strips like those worn by construction workers hung loosely to wrap their bodies. Possibly some logistics guys, she thought. The shrinking of the economy did cut down many jobs that existed prior to the pandemic, but a small scale of the general activities still persisted. 

Like a drop of pond water observed underneath the microscope, the crawling cells might not represent the entire species living in that pond, only a subset of it. The bustling remaining members of society were a subset of the whole picture.

She smiled at the workers. The businesses existing today might not represent what they were as a civilisation before the pandemic wiped out the majority of people. But if someone from the future took a look at the roles of today, they might find it still diverse enough, as varied as the system could still support. They still had logistics, for example. It was proof that commerce still happened, factories still boiled off steams, and the remaining people still bought something, even if at a much smaller rate.

Ale Aguire’s soft and mellow voice belting out “Distancia” from her earphones stopped airing immediately upon Stephanie’s clicking the pause button on her app. She recalled the times when she had to take motorbike-hailing for work ages ago. Back then, her hand and head were used to the helmet trick: its single goal was to confine her earphone wires so that the buds would not dislodge and slip out of the helmet and kissed the asphalt. It was one thing she learned the hard way when the ride-hailing motorcycles still proliferated on the street, even in the early days of the pandemic. 

She shook her head to clear away the depressing thought, deciding to talk to her fellow passengers to kill time. 

“Hello, where are you going?” she asked with a smile.

“To the port,” one of them, the one who wore the grey shirt, went with a non-Jakartan accent. Likely someone from another city on Java island, moving here where many jobs still existed to run the supply chain. The man and his peer looked fresh like out of a morning shower. Stephanie checked the digital clock on her phone to be sure it was almost noon. Shift workers. They were heading north. Stephanie’s client resided in a neighbourhood upward, still closer to them now than these workers’ destination.

“Loading unloading? I wonder how often that is. With the ration and all.” If there was a better thing out of the pandemic, it was the sense of togetherness in the groups of people. 

Stephanie felt it formed rather easily across the boundaries of race, religion, or class. Because in the end, everyone from any background struggled in this era. Granted, being an Immune might offer her some privileges. But between her and the two men here, and the bus driver as well, they could talk about anything like a pack. The internal yearning to reach for other surviving people bonded them tighter than any prejudicial force that tried to split people apart.

The other worker nodded and chimed in, “But it’s not the basic necessities, though. We’re good with that, I think. At least from my time in supply depots. It’s goods like clothes or electronics accessories.”

His friend with the thick accent asked with a burgeoning excitement, “You’re a Companion, yeah?”

She agreed. 

“How is it with the people living alone? Must be crazy, eh. Can’t imagine that. What a pity.”

His buddy elbowed her gently in the flank. “That explains why these luxury items keep coming. People with money buy them. And we’re getting paid anyway,” he chuckled, showing sincere giggles.

No sneering at her profession. Yet. Maybe. A Companion, due to the nature of the job, could visit as many grids as they needed. These workers couldn’t; they could only travel from their homes to the ports or depots they were assigned to. Technically, there was no day-by-day thorough checking of everyone’s travel itinerary, but with the drones and sometimes the birds—unified global government choppers—everyone was sensibly jumpy. 

Stephanie laughed with them. “I heard they still have some restaurants open near the port. For you guys? I haven’t been at any since I don’t know.”

They proceeded to talk about the port, the workers there and their activities, while the sun perched at the highest point slightly after midday. She answered their enthusiastic questions about what Companions did and genuinely asked about how logistic work differed now from before the pandemic. ‘Before time’, as the colloquial mandated.

She tossed her rucksack over her shoulder and said goodbye to the driver and the workers after getting off at the bus stop the map told her. She was twenty minutes late, but her heart pounded happily again when she spotted the apartment destination within a walking distance.

This high-rise spanned a vast area of land. Three towers pierced the scorching white sky proudly like the spires of storybook castles. Their criss-cross pattern of beige and ochre painting decorated the outer walls facing the main Kemayoran-Sunter avenue, giving a sense of modern design to set it apart from the vicinity office risers that seemed to be built in the pre-minimalism era. 

Consistently adhering to the most sought after design choice, rectangular appendages protruded from the main sides of the towers, simple balconies for the inhabitants who resided behind the thick anti-UV glasses. The dark grey colour gave off a professional and stylish ambience, particularly attracting potential buyers or renters from the affluent middle class. 

Those people with new money found pressure from their peers to live in a matching environment. Jakarta as a megapolitan had its fair share of slum areas where houses generally joined at the hip with each other, one major factor of fire hazard in densely populated urban districts. 

But when one’s income allowed them to afford better living conditions, they could distance themselves from those questionable neighbourhoods and rent a place at one of the towers. Several condo corps providing minimalist furniture design for their flagship high-risers—she could not keep track of whether those companies still existed in this era— soon sent them catalogues to pick from. 

This client who booked her definitely came from this society, one person inhabiting one unit out of hundreds in this compound where the rest had been vacant due to the massive death.

Lila, that was her display name on the Prattle app. Stephanie sent a final glance at her screen before stepping to the other side of an auto glassdoor. No receptionists or security guards in the lobby. No more nonessential people since the Immune had been focused and reallocated to work somewhere else that still required human hands and minds. Probably the Immune people from these front office jobs were now working at the logistics points like the two workers or care of the elderly.

Air conditioning did not work on the ground floor. Again, nonessential items. Who found time to fix them? Maybe the technician had been one of the innumerable names on the online registry of the dead when the public cemetery could not handle them anymore, a fact that always struck Stephanie however many she tried to forgive on Memorial Days she attended; this society was built on optimism and upwards forecasting. Nature showed its ruthless hand and the maths toppled in the blink of an eye.

Stephanie pressed the Up button on the elevator, waited for a few minutes, and then boarded the carriage that would carry her to the eleventh floor.

Only the subtle whirring hum of elevator belts was heard during her ride up. The cross symbols made of a pair of black tape stripes were still glued to the elevator floor, marking the standing position each of the passengers had to stand on due to the physical distancing. Oh, how it felt like aeons ago. She was the only one, almost felt like the last survivor of this planet, despite the truth ultimately disagreeing with that.

It dinged when the digital light showed 11 and she got off. The first sight assaulting her eyes was the open doors of the vacant units. Daylight didn’t find its strength to bathe the nooks and crannies of the abandoned space, the owners might have been listed on the internet some time ago. Too hard for the next of kin to follow up on petty matters like who continued the upkeep of a property when their wellbeing themselves were also at stake.

And at the corners that love of a family could not dust anymore, darkness crept in. It felt like staring down the depth of a dry well that used to overflow with freshwater, now its jagged inner wall parched with the memory of the spring. 

Stephanie could imagine the delicious smell of baked goods wafting in the air, could hear the cheerful laughter of toddlers and parents, or the sweet snores when the calm nights descended upon them despite Jakarta continuing to buzz from one dawn to the next. But now, even the sunlight dragged its feet to shine its melancholy. The dust bunnies under the beds or sofas must feel content just with the company of balls of paper and kisses from the wind.

How did it feel to live in the only unit alive on this floor in this tower? Stephanie knocked on the door, its teak wood could use some polish. 

And its hinges, too, Stephanie thought whether the factory that distributed WD-40 still opened when one round, healthy face of a woman greeted her. Looking around forty, her hair was put in an updo with a claw. Stephanie acknowledged physical features only partially because she believed in understanding the emotional and mental state of the clients held precedence over everything else. 

“Good afternoon, I’m Stephanie Marsayudi from Prattle. I have an appointment with Ms Lila Wardani,” she mentioned her client’s full name as recorded in the app for the Companions to view.

It didn’t escape Stephanie that the eyes that stared at her had a moment of wariness before softening. Quite common in people with social anxiety, like a person’s first contact with new foods. Cautionary first, surprise later. She got quite fluent in detecting microexpressions.

The tensed shoulders of her client fled swiftly, replaced by a soft voice that matched the now surprised gaze, “You came. You really came.” 

That was new. Stephanie never met someone as genuinely bewildered as Lila was when she arrived for the first time. A protective instinct, surged from the base of her skull, flooded her being. Her heart itched to leave the first session with Lila feeling better, for whatever her current problem was. 

They shook hands. Lila wouldn’t need to worry about Stephanie might transmit the virus because the Companions were Immune people. Also, with the careful and stringent mobilisation grid in place, the transmission rate dropped profusely. Albeit had been late for like, a year.

Both ladies walked inside the unit, the wall painted in ochre. Few minimalist paintings in pastel colours hung on the wall. A typical wedding photo, of the groom and bride wearing their happy smiles, centred on Stephanie’s gaze. Her eyes furtively glanced at the interior, finding no sight of preteen or younger person’s articles. So, no children, perhaps. Probably sensitive to the topic as well, she mentally noted to avoid the triggers when spending time for their first session.

Lila’s green lounge dress rustled as she made a beeline to the kitchen after settling Stephanie into her seat. One laptop opened at the desk near the corner of the living room, generous sunlight provided ample freshness to the surrounding. 

Stephanie let her mind wander to imagine what night might have felt like there, quiet and calm, with the tapping sound of fingers on the keyboard tethering her to reality. Oh, how she always wanted to have a bronze standing lamp to match her aesthetics at home. 

The golden blackout curtain danced to the rhythm of the wind, like a faraway girl humming a sombre tune. What kind of person was Lila, and what about her family?

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