The VICE Channels



    Written by Julie Steinbacher

    Art by Koren Shadmi

    Sia breaks the teens from her strain into the sterile examination room with the code she took off the doctor’s exo. She has to swipe her suitsleeve over the receiver several times; the gummy material sticks and interferes with the read.

    If the code has changed, it’ll be months before they can organize another party. They’ve all just had their immuno-boosters and tests. If someone catches them, they might not ever get the chance again.

    Down the hall, dimmed to gray after curfew, Mar keeps watch. They can creep around just as quietly as someone out of a suit, but their hearing, filtered through headpieces, isn’t as sensitive.

    The green light flickers and the lock pops open. She sends an all-clear to Mar’s headpiece. One by one their friends duck past her into the air shower. All six of them squeeze into the room, the green-black carapaces of their exos gleaming in the soft emergency lighting, and huddle around a padded exam table. Sia closes up afterward.

    A whoosh of air as she pops her suit open with an exopick. The rigid domed helmet and shoulders lift up and back; she shivers as the dry, chill air hits her hairless head.

    Even with quarterly physical exams, there’s always a moment of held breath when she emerges from the suit. Her friends are watchful. They’ve never seen anyone sicken and die from exposure, but they’ve heard stories. Karil, a kid from a different strain, cracked his headpiece after a fall. The doctors put him in an induced coma while they boosted his system and hoped for the best.

    Sia blinks rapidly against the cold and then nods at her friends, the brush of open air prickling the skin of her scalp. They clamor for her to do them next. Their voices are faint murmurs in the earpieces of her open helmet.

    Sometimes she resents the suits and the doctors who don’t wear them, but she knows she’s lucky. Other kids in isolated communities just died when the disease swept through. The doctors talk about antibiotic resistance. She’s heard them joke that one day everyone will need an exo.

    Sia smiles at her friends, colorless eyes trained on the nearest body, and fits the pick to the exolock. The seal is engraved with a subject number, one she has memorized.

    “Hey, Sia,” Mar says as the headpiece clears his dark, dimpled cheeks.

    His voice reverberates in the small room, heavier and fuller in the open air. His jaw looks squarer than the interface he projects on his helmet—time for an update. She wonders if her face has changed since the last time they did this, if he prefers her interface to her real face.

    “Do the next one?” Sia asks, flushing. She turns around and slides her arms up and out, the suit releasing gel on her skin as she moves. Her hands pop from the glove sockets and she squirms her tight chest free, rounds the flexible body over her hips and sets her bare feet on the floor. Before doing anything else, she hangs it carefully and turns up the temperature.

    Mar’s arm just misses hers as he hangs his own suit, and she trembles. It’s been months. He waits for her, waiting for the others.

    Their bodies are hairless, legs spindly without the padding of the suits. The cold floor hurts the bottoms of their feet. They stare at one another, trying not to, their own shapes unfamiliar to them, others’ curves only half-remembered. They’re never in the same space, skin to skin, with anyone, not even the doctors.

    Quivering, they huddle close enough to breathe on each other. Electricity zigzags through the room in the bump of knees and brush of shoulders.

    Sia turns to Mar, leans her body toward his. He shakes his head softly. “Not too fast.”

    He extends a hand and Sia raises hers to meet it. Their fingertips brush clumsily after their sureness inside the exos. Gentle pressure, like the rubbery suits, but uneven, imperfect, shockingly inexact. They close their palms together and then brush finger trails down each other’s forearms. Their bodies gleam dully, sparkle a little where their suits have left gel behind. She sighs as his fingers skirt the inside of her elbow. He bites his lower lip when she grasps his arm firmly and squeezes.

    Movement ripples through the group, one-on-one to two-on-one to two-on-two. Mar and Sia withdraw to lean against the counter, inhaling sharply as their hips bump the solid ledge.

    Sia etches the soft lines of his ribs with her eyes, softer than the articulated ridges of the exo.

    Touch me,” he whispers, voice dropping. It’s thrilling to hear the word used in this way, and Sia feels heat deep in her stomach.

    Someone flicks on a room skinner, and the bare walls, floor, and ceiling come alive with color. They are colors from the infostreams, from the world of healthy, strong people who aren’t confined to exos, so much more vivid than anything in this desert facility where Sia and the others have been raised. The floor becomes a patchwork of red and pink and green, the walls blue like the skies they’ve never stood under, the ceiling dotted with a shimmering trail of stars.

    Mar grasps Sia’s thighs and pulls, leaving lines of pink on her flesh. The drag of each finger is so distinct it’s painful, and she gasps. She watches his face change as she touches his neck and chest, the way he presses his teeth into his own lower lip and squeezes shut his eyes, expressions too nuanced for the interface. They move closer, exhale against each others’ lips and kiss, soft at first, then long and deep.

    Soon the room is warm and they are slick with the sweat their exos would otherwise siphon from them and filter into the air. Sia smells the bright sharp tang of Mar’s skin. Someone tears open a fluid pack so they can drink with their mouths now that they can’t suck through the plugs of their suits. Half of it gets swallowed and the rest is sprayed across the room. They slip and tangle on the floor, Mar and Sia joining the pile.

    She kisses another boy—his face narrower, lips thinner. They’re all so different under the suits, behind the interfaces. One of the girls presses herself against Sia and the texture of her skin is different still. Sia licks the rise of her collarbone, savors the soft sounds the girl makes, the sweet-salty taste of her. Sia pillows her head on the girl’s chest and flicks her tongue around a nipple, while the girl presses Sia’s fingers to the wet inside her and squirms her hips as Sia slips them in circles and circles.

    Mar leans to kiss the girl and Sia watches the workings of his jaw and small ears. When they break the kiss, the girl lifts her chest and calls someone else over. She kisses Sia once and then rolls away with the new partner.

    “Mar,” Sia whispers.

    He takes Sia’s hand and pulls her to him. Her hip grazes the floor and even the bruises feel good. When they press together, Mar’s body fits against hers almost as neatly as her exo. He slides a hand between them and she huffs into his ear.

    “Anyone else?” Mar asks.

    Other bodies and limbs, hands and sides and feet, move around them and against them.

    “Just you now,” she says, taking him into her hand.

    Mar sucks her earlobe and sighs with pleasure.

    “I want—” she swallows, pulls back enough to look at his eyes, dyed the colors of the projection. Hazy green on her.

    Mar’s face softens and he lowers his brow in a question.

    “Could we try—?” she asks.

    They’ve had general education on the body, the way sex works for normal people. They’ve snuck into each other’s bunks to watch the infostreams together late at night, pressed close in their exos.

    The motions are unpracticed, Sia lowering herself, too fast at first. She gasps as pain blooms inside her and balances with a hand against Mar’s chest, then rocks softly, finding the place where the pain changes. At first Mar holds her hips like she’ll break apart, but she urges him and they move together. Mar pulls her low to reach her mouth. Sia presses a finger to the base of her and rubs.

    And then it’s that rolling feeling that comes with a quake or a sudden storm, except it’s inside her and rushing through the top of her head and out of her in her cries. She thinks of rain pelting her, sand scraping her bare back, the heat of a sun warming all her skin. The dunes alive, briefly, with flowering plants.

    Sia comes back to herself and gazes into Mar’s ashen eyes. He presses his mouth to her cheek, leaves a wet mark.

    “Was it too fast?” he asks.

    She shakes her head and wraps him in her arms. They lie in their knot of friends, breaths slowing. An errant hand caresses her face, soft lips brush her chest. After a few moments Sia eases herself away. She climbs to a crouch, ascends to her feet with arms outstretched, unsteady. Stumbling to the hooks, she finds her exo by waving her arm to the rack. An empty sleeve rises, drawn to her skin, and she glances at the inset screen.

    “Fifteen, guys,” she says. Quiet groans, but most are nodding blissfully or grasping at each other with less verve, spent. The room is close and hot, and now she wants the fluid clean of her suit, the even temperature.

    Mar gives someone else a squeeze and joins Sia by the door. He doesn’t say anything, just traces the line of her jaw. She kisses his fingertips as they cross her lips. His eyes are colorless once more.

    “I wish—” he says, trailing off.

    She nods, takes his hand briefly. “We’ve got to clean up,” she says.

    Mar pulls down his exo and braces himself against the counter, stepping in a leg at a time. Sia watches, wonders when they’ll be in this room together next.

    When the others get off the floor Sia is suited up and waiting. Side-by-side, they look like two different species. She turns off the skinner and hands it to the girl who brought it in. While they close up she surveys the abdomen and legs of her exo, the dull outer skin. Already the suit’s automatic functions are kicking in, running a cleaner sweep of her body. No traces left of Mar. Her face warms at the thought before the suit evens her body heat.

    She replaces the exopick in the drawer, turns the temperature back to dormant settings, schedules a sanitization.

    “Everyone good?” she asks, her words back in her head and the cups of her ears.

    They give their assent in nervous giggles. Their glances to one another’s figures, cast in green and black, are shy again. She checks them individually anyway, making sure the seals are tight.

    “Okay, I’m opening the door.”

    Sia goes first, into the blinding crackle and zap of the air shower and then the hall. One by one they emerge, Sia at the corner keeping watch. She sends her friends away at intervals.

    Mar comes out last, cocks his head. Sia can just see the wink of his eyes through his exo, the bare line of his lips. He presses the fingers of one enclosed hand to the curve of his helmet where his lips are, extends them. Sia does the same and meets his fingertips. No spark, no sigh, just the rough dull rub of exo on exo.

    This dispatch is part of ​Terraform, our online home for future fiction.​