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“Carrier Signal” by J Y Yang

“Carrier Signal” placed Second in the Science in My Fiction contest.

T-minus 2 D, Pula

The novelty of solid ground has worn off.

Half an hour ago I’d been ecstatic, ridiculously happy, just for the simple pleasure of dry land under my feet. Flat and firm, no ring of metal, no buck and yaw, no engine vibrations. After forty days in the hulls of cargo ships and two miserable, face-biting hours on a choppy speedboat, the solidness of Pula’s Croatian asphalt had felt like a welcome hug – a stranger’s hug, but a hug nonetheless.

That magic is gone now, erased and written over by more urgent sentiments: my calves are burning. My chest hurts. My fingers are numb and my jacket is too thin. We walked an hour uphill over deserted night-time roads and now we and our bags have to climb seven flights of stairs in a Soviet-era apartment block that smells like a gigantic toilet, because the elevator hasn’t worked in thirty years. The edges of my vision flicker green, uneven blood flow putting the AR streams on the fritz, as it always does when I get winded – a bug [SynCorp] was never able to work out. I look up at our group leader, Vladan, and wonders how he does it. He can barely fit into the narrow stairway, but he navigates it with ease.

Vladan is our guide and our host until we get to Zagreb’s international airport, a big man who comes in several layers topped by an impossibly thick beard. Even the clunky pair of first-gen AR headset he has on looks strangely small on his wide head. Back at the landing dock Alexi had muttered, “A human turd”, and I had elbowed him for being rude, but now the phrase is stuck in my head, replaying every time I look at Vladan.

He waves encouragingly. “Come on, boys, just a few more steps, no biggie.” He taps the side of his headset, sincere and earnest. “You can see how many calories you’ve burned, yes?”

Despite Alexi’s disparaging comments – or perhaps because of them – I can’t help liking Vladan. He’s one of our saviors, after all. The first thing he did when we’d stepped off the speedboat was to give us a basket of strawberries from a friend’s garden. Alexi ate them all on the walk up. It’s not that he dislikes Vladan, it’s just that he can’t help saying some things. That’s Alexi for you. He talks and talks and he doesn’t care. It used to give Ma so much grief when we were kids and Alexi couldn’t stop mouthing off in class.

But I don’t want to think about Ma right now.

I slow down to fall in pace with Alexi. His small frame hunches into an oversized jacket that’s zipped up to the chin and he stares at his feet as he climbs. “You okay?” I ask.

He doesn’t answer. He hardly ever speaks anymore. When we first got him out of the facility, the Freedom Project and I, this silence of his scared me – is this the same Alexi, the kid who wouldn’t shut up, what have they done to his mind, what have they done to him? During the course of our recent career as stowaways he drew further and further into himself, breaking out only to throw tantrums. And sometimes objects. Mostly at me. Deep inside I know he’s scared about the upcoming operation – after what had happened to him, who wouldn’t be terrified by doctors? – but his childish outbursts have worn my patience thin enough to snap.

I put my hand on his shoulder and it gets shrugged off without a word. The struggling fluorescent lamps hide his face in a mass of jagged, impenetrable shadows as he runs past me and up towards Vladan. So I choose to pretend that he’s okay and tell myself that I’ll worry later. I go talk to Elena.

Bringing up the rear of our motley crew, Elena is half-Russian, half-British, and a neurobiologist-turned-hacker-and-IT-expert. Stick thin, she has purple shadows painting her watchful eyes. I had tried striking up conversation earlier in our walk, but she had been on the lookout for police cars and didn’t talk much. I’m not coming on to her, I’m really not, but after spending so long below decks trapped with Alexi and a couple of grumpy crewmen, any female company is a welcome change.

I point to a tag on the wall, in the same style as the huge one we’d seen covering half the south wall of the apartment block earlier. “Why do they even bother?” I ask her. “Who comes up here anyway?”

She looks at the wall, then at me, and shakes her head gently. “Joseph, I’m off the grid. We all are. Everybody in the Freedom Project is.”

Of course. I’m a bloody idiot. It should have been obvious from the moment my first Freedom Project contact said there was no worry that Alexi’s sickness could infect any of them. No AR connectivity, no virus transmission. Simple.

So AR data is invisible to Elena. I focus on the walls of the stairwells – peppered with gang signs – and the shaft of the thirty-years-dead elevator, with the blinking red dot over the manufacturer’s plaque that indicates I can pull up a specs menu if I want to, in hrvatski or English. And then at the environmental stats ticker-scrolling at the edge of my vision, telling me about the temperature (too cold), the humidity (not anywhere near what I’m used to), my heart rate and respiration (off the charts as usual – cardio was never my strong point). I don’t even think of these things as AR anymore. Augmented reality is the annoying adwall downtown, the government PSAs broadcasting at gantry points, the smart directions that lead the way when you get lost. This – what I’m looking at – is just reality.

“What you’re pointing out,” she adds, “is just blank wall to me. Nothing on it. Blank.”

I can’t wrap my mind around that. In the dull narrow space we were assigned on the cargo ferry I had whiled my time away trying to imagine life off the grid, and I thought I’d come pretty close to accepting it. But all the Freedom Project personnel I’d met so far always had headsets on, and I could still talk to them about things. Tacky advertisments. Traffic congestions a mile away. Now here is Elena with her blue eyes and their frightfully veiny eye bags telling me frankly that she can’t see what I see, and somehow I just can’t swallow it. Maybe I’m just tired, or frustrated. Or scared. Possibly all three at once.

Vladan and Alexi are waiting for us at the end of the corridor on the seventh floor. The door of the last apartment is open and Vladan makes a faux grand gesture. “Welcome to my humble abode.” He has his headset pushed up and the corner of his black eyes crinkle.

Alexi is still stubbornly staring at his feet. I follow his gaze and find them focused on the tips of his shoes, where he’d spent most of the ship journey rubbing off the manufacturer’s mark with a pebble. Only a white stub and a few faint outlines remain of them. From my point of view nothing in Alexi’s field of vision has an AR tag. The ground and the tips of his feet are all frighteningly blank.

Alexi goes inside without a word. Two days left until we’re off the grid.

***

T-Minus 1 D, Pula

Morning. Crammed up against the table the tiny square of a kitchen with just enough space for either of us to turn around, Elena and I sit in uneasy silence, waiting for Vladan to come back with breakfast. She’s tapping on her lap console; I’m just waiting. Our bags, unpacked, lie around the shoebox-sized living room. The only sound in the flat is the clack-clack-clack Alexi makes, sitting on the living room couch playing with Vladan’s first-gen iSight. I hope he’s coping without it; he’d left it behind in his hasty exit after an extremely uncomfortable conversation with Alexi about his time in the facility.

I should have told Vladan that rule number one of dealing with Alexi is: don’t ever ask about his time in the facility.

The latch rattles in its frame and, with a rustle of plastic bags, Vladan is back with us. “I got some ham to go with black bread,” he says, and squashes the bags into the space left on the kitchen table. “Plus fruits. Bagels. Milk.” He populates the crowded table with each item as he names them.

“Who drinks milk around here?” Elena mutters under her breath.

“And some cereal. Muesli, anyone? It’s berries.” He peers at the vector illustration on the otherwise-blank box. “I think.”

I take the box from him and study the nutritional menu that pops up. Croatian-only: “Blueberry, cranberry, apricot and raisins.” I barely remember enough of Pa’s language to decipher it. But yes, berries. Vladan shrugs sheepishly and helplessly at me.

A shadow falls across the table, blocking the single ray of early dawn. Alexi plucks the box of muesli from my hands, and just as quickly as he’d come, retreats back to the couch he’s claimed.

Vladan tries to catch his eye, but Alexi is completely oblivious, so he turns to me, hands held out in supplication. “I hope I haven’t offended your brother.”

I have to laugh at that. “No, that’s just normal for Alexi.” I turn a pointed glance in his direction, but he’s ignoring everything to tear open the cereal box, so I decide to forget it. “I don’t do much better myself.”

Vladan sits down, sighing, and picks up a banana. “And I don’t know how you do it. It must take amazing strength. Your family’s gone, you’re wanted by the government, on top of that you’re about to undergo a life-changing procedure. Most people take years of counseling before deciding to go off-grid.” He looks at me and I can see the photojournalist in him at work, back to his old ways. “How do you do it?”

I smile the best I can. “A day at a time? Everything you said is true. And it sounds overwhelming, but I guess you don’t really feel it when you’re trapped in the middle. You just keep moving forward.” I cut myself slabs of the darkish bread from the loaf.

Vladan hands me the parcel of ham as Elena helps herself to a bagel. “I have to be honest with you, Elena and I are also a bit overwhelmed by this. We usually handle cases without so much uncertainty. So many issues. Quite a bit fewer federal agents in pursuit, too.”

“I understand. Our situation is… well, unique would be an understatement, I guess.”

“Do you actually know what happened in Florida? It seems nobody knows the real story behind the outbreak, not even the elders in the Project.”

“I wish I knew,” I say, sandwiching ham between my bread. “But I don’t. I was doing student rotations in a lab in Switzerland when the outbreak happened.” All I know is that one day I was preparing for my final presentation and then the next my parents were dead, my hometown was a military-held restricted zone and my little brother was all over the news. “I was told that the virus was released in our neighborhood and Alexi was the main vector, that’s why they had to isolate him, keep him in permanent quarantine. Thousands were infected before the virus mutated itself out of existence.” But that story has gaps too, and I’m not sure if I believe it – why, then, is Alexi still alive? If he were immune to the virus, how could he spread it? And why hasn’t he infected anyone since we got him out of quarantine?

And the stories he tells about the monsters they put in his head in the facility – the three-headed spiders that watch you with red eyes at night, the eyeball worms that eat their way out of your head – are they real or another one of his flights of fancy?

“I wonder if Michael knows,” Vladan muses out loud through a mouthful of banana.

Michael. Named like the archangel. Our savior, who is paying for passage to Belgrade, who is arranging for the operation, who will take us to the commune in Amsterdam after it is all over. To a small quiet life off the grid. He is, as far as I know, only loosely connected to the Freedom Project, and he doesn’t work alone, but with some rich anonymous patron. Vladan, in our online exchanges before we met, had guessed at the identity of that benefactor: probably some bored young energy tycoon, some punk kid with enough political capital to smuggle known fugitives into Europe under the sweeping searchlights of the CIA. I didn’t know head from tail of any of that (and I still don’t), so I just agreed with him.

Alexi is curled on the couch. He eats like a squirrel, hands cupped in front of him, nibbling furiously on the raw muesli as he stares intently at the cereal box propped in front of him. Lost in a little world of his own, for now. His beard – a poor disguise, I feel – looks particularly ridiculous on him this way. “What’s he doing?” Vladan asks.

“I guess he’s watching the show that comes with it. The cereal companies have a whole line of them that come embedded, a new one comes out every month or so.” I’d watched a couple of clips and found them surprisingly good. Most of them were little stand-alone stories starring the company mascots, offbeat and kitschy enough to charm both adults and children.

Alexi laughs, a rare happy moment fleeting across his face.

“It comes with audio?” Vladan asks.

“Music, mostly. Some of them have dialogue.”

“They’ve got audio-enabled streams now?” Elena sits up, suddenly engaged. “When was this introduced? I thought the technology was years away.”

I scratch my head. “Audio? [SynCorp]’s latest firmware update came with it. Not the best quality, a bit scratchy, but it works well enough. It came out sometime in April.” April. It’s been four months. It does not feel like four months.

Alexi suddenly rears back as if he’s been struck, and with a single movement he flips the cereal box over, more forcefully than violently, and shoves it to the end of the couch. His knuckles whiten as he wraps them around his knees, breakfast forgotten, flakes of rolled oats scattered around him like dead leaves. Awkward silence falls across the room again. I wonder what it was that he saw in the box, if it had anything to do with the monsters he talked about. The gulf that exists between us suddenly yawns open in front of me, as wide as the one that I had felt between Elena and myself the day before. I want to reach out and tell him that it’ll be alright, but I don’t know if he will hear me or not.

***

T-Minus 1 D, Pula

Michael arrives in the afternoon, a clean-shaven ramrod of man in a neatly-fitted shirt that smells faintly of cologne. He comes in just as I finish watching the animation clip embedded in the cereal box: a campy little love story about a girl and a cartoon gecko, set to happy, ridiculously over-the-top music that includes parts of a French opera. There’s nothing in it that’s remotely frightening. Again I wonder what it was that Alexi saw.

Our savior has a soft crisp voice, tinged with a velvet-smooth precise accent that places him somewhere north of London. Skipping the formalities he gathers all of us in the living room and instructs: “Please wait,” while he extracts a slim, almost fragile looking set of headgear from his bag and puts it on. A small object which looks like a camera nestles against the side of his face; he taps it and checks some readout on the display pad he’s holding. Seemingly pleased with what he sees, he adjusts something on the miniature camera and starts scanning across the room.

“What are you doing?” Elena asks, eyes narrowing.

“Only a small test.” He finishes his sweep of the room and, without hesitation, looks straight at Alexi with his piercing blue eyes. “So you’re the one.”

Alexi says nothing, a muscle in his jaw working as if to keep him from shouting at Michael.

Michael turns to him. “I’ll need to do a fuller scan of your brainstem, with your permission,” he says in that quiet voice of his.

Alexi shakes his head, a slow side-to-side movement that allows him to keep his eyes completely trained on Michael. “You don’t want to do that.”

“It’s a passive scan. I only need to have a look at your brain structure. Nothing will happen. Nothing will awaken.”

Alexi hesitates, and for the first time in days, maybe weeks, meets my eyes. I nod encouragingly.

He closes his eyes, bites his lower lip, and nods to Michael.

The scan takes less than a minute and is done in cloying silence. Michael takes his time turning the headset off, disengaging it and putting it back into his bag, like a precision artisan. We all wait soundlessly, almost breathlessly, for his verdict; even the normally chatty Vladan is completely subdued.

He smiles at us, a doctor’s smile, and says, “It is as we thought.”

“Thought?” Elena folds her arms. “Thought what?”

“The two components that drive the [SynCorp] AR system are the optical networks that interface directly with the brain’s synapses, and the router nodes which receive and send such information,” he narrates, in the voice of a documentarian. “Because they are inserted in the brain only after prenatal neurogenesis is complete, these connections are unable to interface with many of the native neural circuits. Therefore, they are largely static and single-purpose. They can receive input from other synapses, and they can modulate data from very specific, targeted sensory nerves. In the industry these are called one-bit connections.”

His lecture is met by a series of nods, some of which – particularly from Elena – are rather impatient. This is not news. This was in textbooks two years ago. Five years ago.

“The standard being pursued by most R&D arms now are two-bit connections. Loosely speaking these would be connections that are able to achieve the same amount of connectivity as native ones – in other words, you would not be able to tell the difference between an AR input and a real-life sensory input. This would represent a jump from current augmented reality technology that we have, to full virtual reality. It opens up a world of endless possibilities.”

But what has this got to do with Alexi?

“Now, developments to this field have been greatly hampered by our limited knowledge of how the human mind actually works. Neurotech is a fast-expanding field, but we’ve barely scraped the surface of what we need to know. However, there are certain models we can study.”

Models?

“We know that the nanoparticles produced by the nodes very occasionally escape the blood-brain barrier and enter the general circulation. Now, these nanoparticles are harmless. Being brain-matter specific they don’t do anything in the body. However, it’s been found that in some pregnant women the nanoparticles manage to attach themselves to the embryonic brainstem while it’s still developing—typically, during the later stages of neurulation. In cases where the interference does not result in premature termination, the resulting children are born with so-called optical networks – which are, by this time, a misnomer – and these networks are already fully formed and integrated in every part of the brain, from the medulla to the cerebral cortex.”

I suck in a breath. I can see where this is going. I already know.

“These instances are very rare, maybe one in a hundred thousand births. And they are undetectable unless you already know what you are looking for. So far all the documented cases have been discovered by accident, due to medical procedures or firmware issues.”

Or, in some cases, getting infected by a [SynCorp] virus released by a terrorist hacker group.

“The virus that was released in Florida worked on the principle that the current [SynCorp] technology is alien to the human brain, and while harmless when restricted and properly regulated, could cause death by interfering with basic functions like heart rate and respiration. ”

And that’s why Alexi was immune to the virus. He had a natural built-in firewall. While everyone around him was convulsing, dying, he remained alive with a brain that had its own set of instructions and knew how to ignore the intruder, yet continued to broadcast it wirelessly in blind panic, as the world around him crumbled. I can see him now, running through the streets of our hometown, desperate, felling entire swathes of people as he uncomprehendingly runs helter-skelter. A modern day plague rat.

“Congratulations,” Michael says to Alexi, with a small vague sort of smile. “You’re a two-bit connection.”

Alexi’s hands curl into fists.

“In any case.” Michael reaches into his bag again and retrieves a couple of packages. One is a hypodermic kit, the other is a capsule with a thick gelatinous liquid. “Because of your unique physiology, we need to take an additional step before the operation.”

“What is that?” I ask, fixated on the sealed capsule. It has the [SynCorp] logo screenprinted onto one side of it.

“It’s a killfile.” He holds it up; the liquid inside sloshes lazily. “The operation that will be done in Belgrade only removes the implanted router nodes. It doesn’t affect the optical networks and the risks of accidental brain damage are relatively slim. But you” – looking at Alexi as he says this – “are different. We don’t know how your native network might react to the router nodes being removed. So we need to shut them down before the operation.”

“That’s it,” says Elena, breaking out of her impatient self-imposed silence, having heard enough. “Enough of this we, enough of this being Mister Mysterious. Who are you? Who is this we you keep talking about? I don’t trust any of it. That [SynCorp] killfile – how did you get a hold of that? People have been killed for less. Much less.”

Silence follows, Elena’s accusations hanging in the air with the weight of a thousand hooks. I want to pull Alexi back, put some space between him and Michael. Behind me I can feel Vladan protectively moving closer.

Michael lowers his eyes delicately. “Your superiors in the Freedom Project probably don’t want me to tell you this. But since you’ve asked, I see no point in keeping the identity of your benefactor from you.”

My stomach drops.

“His name is Elric Seagard. He personally arranged for Alexi’s passage and operation – ”

“Wait,” Vladan blurts, “do you mean Elric Seagard, the CEO of [SynCorp]?” We are all staring. If he had said the operation was being backed by the Lord Christ himself and he’d have gotten the same reaction.

“That Elric Seagard, yes.” Michael makes a small, indeterminate gesture with his free hand. “It’s definitely not public knowledge, and God permitting it will never be, but Elric is one of the Freedom Project’s main founders. He not quite involved in the day-to-day running of the project, but he has been financially backing a lot of the Project’s initiatives, including the commune in Amsterdam.”

Vladan and Elena exchange looks; I watch them out the corner of my eye. “So the rumors were true,” Vladan says.

Elena nods, but she still doesn’t seem convinced. Of course she isn’t – this is madness! I step closer to Michael, to Alexi. “I don’t understand. Why would he support an project whose main purpose is to subvert everything his company does?”

“It’s a personal choice,” Michael says quietly. “I shouldn’t be speaking for him on that matter.”

“No,” I say sharply, “That’s not a good enough answer. If Alexi’s condition is so rare and valuable, as you say, why would he throw something like that away? Why would he even agree to have Alexi’s AR capability shut down? Wouldn’t that be opposite of what he wants?”

“It’s okay, Joseph,” interrupts Alexi, and it’s the first time he’s called me by name since we got him out of the facility. “I know why he’s doing this for me.” He locks eyes with Michael. “You know too, don’t you?”

Michael nods.

“Alexi – ” I begin.

“I said, it’s okay. We can trust him.” Alexi reaches up to take the killfile and the hypo kit from him. “What should I do?”

“Administer it tonight. It takes around six hours for the killfile to complete its operations. Just in time for the flight tomorrow.”

“Will it get rid of the monsters?”

Michael sighs. “I cannot say if it will. But it will kill your ability to broadcast them, at the very least.”

I don’t even know what they’re talking about.

Michael reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out a small flat stack of stubs. Our tickets. “I’ll see you at the airport tomorrow.”

***

T-minus 1 D, Pula

The sun sets over the sea, painting leisurely apricot stripes over the sloping hills covered in dark green. White brick houses cluster easily in loose groups, their peaked roofs poking through the foliage like pictures I’ve seen of wild mushrooms. I try to ignore everything else: the signs to the best restaurants in town, pointing and towering over their targets; the minute-by-minute traffic reports (no congestions—surprise); the sea telling me that the temperature is just right for swimming, but remember to put on sunscreen. I’ve never realized how artificial the permanent AR layer over the world looks. The lights had fit snugly like locking bricks in between the glass and metal and gloss of the cities I’m used to, but out here in the wilds of human existence, where you can walk openly down a main road after midnight and people grow their own strawberries in gardens, the AR streams look absurdly fake. Like camera tricks, like badly done computer graphics from the last century.

Elena comes up beside me and gazes out of the window. “It’s quite a view, isn’t it?”

I agree. Pula is a quiet town: I can hear the wind sighing and the trees breathing. In the distance a gull calls to its mate. It’s easy to forget where we are and why we’re here. I’d spent the afternoon going around the neighborhood with Vladan, helping him scrub tags from the wall with a little box that Elena had programmed, while she’d stayed behind to watch Alexi, who had wanted to nap. We had agreed that he shouldn’t be going out anyway.

“It’s depressing,” Vladan had said to me, as he’d erased another huge mess of rabid colors splayed across a grimy walkway wall. “A few years ago you still had kids going around with spray cans and ski masks at night, but now they’ve all switched to AR tagging.”

“Why depressing?” I’d asked. “They’re easier to get rid of, aren’t they?”

He’d looked at me sadly. “It shows how ubiquitous AR has become. Even here, even amongst the lower classes, everybody’s been noded up.” And then he’d sighed. “I suppose it was only a matter of time.”

I said I’d never really given it much thought, but I supposed that he was right.

“You lived in a lot of cities, didn’t you?” Elena asks, pulling me back into the moment.

“Yes.” Pa had been a regional manager in Asia for one of the Big Pharma outfits and we’d grown up, Alexi and I, hopping from Asian city to Asian city, transferring schools just often enough to keep Alexi out of serious trouble. Ma had spent her time remotely running a chain of budget fashion boutiques in her native Indonesia. And me? I’d spent most of my time studying, or reading. After a while the cities all started running into each other. Tall buildings, bright lights, a constant series of reinventions and rewrites, human palimpsest.

“What was California like for you?”

“I can’t really say. We only moved there about six months before I had to leave for college, and I spent a lot of that time traveling out-of-state.” I try to remember what our house had looked like. It was white. Two floors and an absurd number of oak-panelled rooms. My parents had loved it. “We had a very large garden. My father bought part of a nearby vineyard, I think.” I look at Alexi’s sleeping form on the couch, and add, “But I think Alexi liked living there. He always liked having a lot of space to wander about.”

Elena is quiet for a while. Then she says, “The city dwellers always have the hardest time adapting to life off the grid. They’re so used to a fast life of instant gratification that they’re oblivious to how much that means until they’re taken off the supply of information. From my experience, the longer a person’s spent living in a city, the longer it takes them to integrate into commune life. Some of them never fully do. And there are those who eventually choose to go back to life on the grid.” She looks at me. “These are people who wanted the change. They spent years preparing to leave the grid. They thought they were ready for it.”

“I know the transition will be difficult,” I tell her. “Maybe I’m not ready for it, but at least I’m prepared for it being difficult.”

“That’s what everyone says. And it’s easy to say, but nothing compared to going through the experience itself.” She sighs, and tucks a strand of straw-colored hair behind her ear. “I lived all my life in London before I joined the Freedom Project, and I’m sure you realize that London isn’t quite the city of cities – nothing like your crazy vertical Asian supercities that never sleep. And yet my first commune experience was brutal. You could only get the news if you went indoors. You had to make arrangements beforehand if you wanted to meet up with people. And when I ran out of sugar for my coffee one afternoon I had to walk fifteen minutes to the nearest store to buy some. Fifteen minutes! For sugar! That was nearly the last straw for me, that day I thought to myself this is absolutely ridiculous and contemplated going home to my mother’s.”

“But you’re still here,” I point out. It couldn’t have been as bad as she said it was.

Elena shakes her head. “I flaked out. I left the commune and went to work for the project’s recruitment arm. It turns out I really can’t do without the buzz of the city after all.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“I can tell you’re a lot the same way as I was, maybe even more so. And I felt that I had an obligation to let you know the truth.” She smiles at me, a tiny sad smile. “Maybe you ought to consider that it might be better for you not to enter the commune with your brother.”

I look over at Alexi, at the way the setting sun drapes across the tight curve of his shoulder. I don’t know what to say to her.

***

T-minus 20 h, Pula

Dinner had been an awkward affair. The food had been good – thick, meaty kebab brought back by Vladan after his meeting with higher-ups from the project. But Elena seemed to have been embarrassed by her sudden outburst and barely spoke at all, leaving Vladan and I to make jokes that weren’t very funny, and skirt around the elephants in the room. (“Enjoy your last take-outs,” Vladan had said with a laugh. “You’ll be doing a lot of cooking in the commune.” Fantastic – I don’t know how to cook.) Alexi hadn’t eaten much – only the salad.

Now I lean against the wall in the narrow corridor linking the rooms in Vladan’s flat, waiting for Alexi to come out of the bathroom. Elena’s cautionary tales lie heavily on my chest; I try not to think too much of them. I will be fine, I tell myself, pushing them out of my minds. I’m used to change. I don’t get attached to things or places. I will get through it.

Alexi’s been running the water for a long time.

I sigh, and pound the door. “Hurry up, you’re not the only one who needs a shower.”

Something clatters in the bathroom. The sound of metal against tile.

I pound the door again. “Alexi?” There’s no response.

Something’s wrong. I try the handle, but the door’s locked, rattling in its ancient frame. “Open up!” I shout, hitting the door over and over. The silence from inside is terrifying.

I step back and lunge at the door with my shoulder. Something gives way with a crack and I stumble half-dazed into the bathroom.

The first thing I see is the blood. And then the water spilling everywhere, over the edge of the sink, over the edge of the shower tub where Alexi is sitting with his wrists sliced open.

“What are you doing?” I scream, grabbing at his hands.

His eyes look glassy, confused. “I have to let the monsters out,” he babbles.

He’s still bleeding. I dive for the cabinet above the sink – there’s a first aid box there – I pop it open for the sealant bandages – the contents clatter everywhere – and I grab him.

“No!” He pulls away, squirming, resisting me.

I try to hold him still and we slip on the wet tiles and end up on the floor. He tries to get up but I grab his bloodied arms. He pulls one hand free and scrabbles for purchase while I try to pull him towards me. “Alexi, stop it!”

He strikes me on the neck with his free hand, hard, and in shock I let go. He scrambles backwards, trying to get to his feet and before he can do that I seize him by the scruff of his shirt and slap him full across the face.

Alexi freezes, stunned.

I grab the front of his shirt and shake him furiously. “Don’t do this to me. Look at me, Alexi. No, I said look!” The eyes that meet mine are round, terrified. “Are you crazy? What are you doing? You’re the only thing I have left in this world. Are you trying to leave me, too?”

Alexi hangs his head and his arms go limp, the fight all gone from him. Runny blood drips from his knuckles. “I’m sorry,” he whimpers.

I pick up the damp-ish sealant bandages that I’d dropped in the struggle and try not to look up. I know Vladan and Elena are in the ruins of the doorway, staring in stunned disbelief. I’m not sure what to say to them. I’m not even sure what’s going on anymore.

Alexi shows no further resistance as I clean his arms and apply the bandages. The cuts aren’t actually very deep. Clumsily done and done the wrong way if you really wanted to kill yourself, actually. Behind me Vladan turns off the taps and lets the water out of the sink and the tub, while Elena repacks the first-aid box. Calling the silence awkward would be an incredible understatement.

Elena picks up something which makes a plastic clacking noise. “You’ve administered the killfile?” I turn around; she’s holding the hypo kit with a spent capsule loaded. The [SynCorp] logo stands out even more starkly, cradled in her small hands.

“Yes I did,” Alexi whispers. He fidgets under my grasp. “I was scared.”

“So are we, man,” Vladan says, “But we’re all in this together.”

And then the phone down the hall starts ringing.

***

T-minus 15 h, Zagreb

“Drive faster,” Elena urges Vladan, “or we’ll never make it in time.”

“It’s a private jet,” Vladan mutters, “it won’t take off without them.”

Our overworked Lada lurches as Vladan speeds it round a curved road pulling off the highway. The squat flat buildings of Zagreb’s international airport pull into view, starting to gain definition in a dawn that’s struggling to pull itself out of the murky blue of night. We’ve been driving for nearly three hours straight, traversing the distance between Pula and Zagreb in a blur of halogen lamps and apprehension.

I thought Michael had sounded frazzled over the phone as he announced our change in plans, or maybe that had been caused by the poor quality of the audio-only encrypted connection. But there was definitely a note of warning in the way he urged us to hurry, to leave with the “minimum amount of fuss necessary.”

Nestled against the window, Alexi has the sleeves of his jumper pulled all the way down to hide the bandages over his wrists. He worries the ends of his wig, twirling on a couple of strands and chewing on them. I can feel mine starting to itch under the cap.

Why do we have to cross the Croatian-Serbian border by air? How is getting past airport security any better than having to go through the UN blockade around the rogue nation? This is a stupid idea. We’re going to get caught. We barely evaded federal agents long enough to make it off American soil, and I’m sure they know where we’ll be headed. There aren’t that many hospitals in the world that perform the operation Alexi and I need.

This is a disaster.

The car shudders to a halt in front of a long, low-slung white building that looks chronically underprepared to be an international airport. Where are the bustling travelers, the taxis loading and unloading, the rows of baggage trolleys? Instead, the only person waiting for us is Michael, in his neat attire and a pair of shades. He has a small haversack with him and nothing else.

Elena leaps out of the car as it stops and goes to get our bags out of the boot. Vladan turns to us with a heavy sigh, and pushes up his AR set. This is goodbye.

“I’d wish you luck,” he says, “but I’m not sure how much that would help.”

“Thank you for everything,” I tell him.

He smiles. “Take care of yourself. And your brother.”

He turns towards Alexi. “I’ve got something for you.” He rummages in the compartment between the front seats for a while, and retrieves a small clear plastic box. Strawberries. “I know you like them.”

Alexi accepts the basket with both hands and a rare, tiny smile. “Thank you.”

Elena hugs us both as we get out of the car. “You are going to be okay,” she tells him. He stiffens in her grasp, but only for a brief moment.

She doesn’t disengage from the hug with me immediately; instead she leans close and whispers: “Forget about what I said yesterday. Your brother needs you.”

“I know.” I smile for her. She hugs me again.

She waves through the window as Vladan pulls away from the curb. We watch the dusty white car until it recedes into an indistinguishable speck and vanishes round a corner. And then they’re gone.

“Come along,” Michael says. “The plane is waiting.”

Alexi offers me the remaining half-box of strawberries as we step through the sliding doors into the airport proper. I shake my head, although I appreciate the sentiment. Cautiously, gently, I put my hand on his shoulder.

“I don’t want you to worry about me,” he says, looking at his feet.

I stop in my tracks, surprised, and Alexi turns to face me. Up ahead Michael stops and looks back at us, annoyed. Alexi seems more lucid and focused than he has ever been since we rescued him. He bites a lip. “You’re here because of me. It’s my fault.”

“Don’t say that.”

He scans me briefly. “How are you feeling?”

I almost burst out laughing. “Alexi, you’ve never asked me that question before. Ever.”

He knits his brows together in concern, and suddenly this isn’t Alexi any longer, it’s Bizzaro Child with a scraggly beard and hipster hair who’s wearing my brother’s face. “I’m asking you now.”

“I’m terrified. I’m scared. My life as I know it is over. I may be losing everything I have left in the next couple of days. I don’t know what the future is going to be like. I don’t even know if there’s going to be a future. Is that enough?”

His lips thin and he shakes his head in frustration – not quite the answer he wanted, perhaps.

A hand claps down on each of our shoulders: Michael. “Gentlemen, we really need to be going.”

“Michael,” Alexi says, never taking his eyes off me, “who’s our pilot? Is he from the Freedom Project?”

“Yes. One of Elric’s trusted personal couriers, actually. Why are you asking this? What does it matter?”

“It matters a lot.” And Alexi starts walking again, in the direction of the baggage check and the gates. I exchange a look with Michael, but he just ushers me on.

The airport is crawling with advertisements and PSAs, lights blurring as we pick up the pace. Bag check. Boarding pass. I cling to my ID and hopefully real-enough-to-convince passports. The ceiling of the building seems ridiculously short and cramped compared to other airports I’ve been to, and the walk spaces are narrow enough for the smattering of early-morning travelers to start weaving in and out with each other. I feel fenced in.

Up ahead, in front of the departure gates, a wall of men in black helmets, boots and thick padded jackets amasses. Alexi, leading our pack of three, skids to a halt and we fall into place behind him.

The men take a synchronized step forward. They have guns.

Behind us, Michael swears once, quietly.

A man’s face appears superimposed over the soldiers, ten times larger than life. A nondescript white man’s face with a clean jaw, neatly combed hair and lifeless eyes that give away that it’s all program. “Alexander and Joseph Markovic,” it intones. “You are under arrest.” It reads a string of indecipherable words and numbers, something about international law, something I can’t parse because my heart is pounding in my ears and none of this is really happening, not really. “Offer no resistance and you will not be harmed.”

I turn to Michael and whisper, “Can you see this?”

“No. But it’s not necessary.” His gaze is firm, fixed on the line of soldiers in front of us. “Listen,” he says in a low voice, “The plane is on the tarmac at gate seven. I will distract the men. Make a run for it. Don’t look back. Once the plane is in the air they won’t be able stop you.”

I realize that Michael is armed. One gun against fifteen. The disembodied head repeats its message, but something’s wrong – the sound comes out distorted, and the image warps at the edges. The deterioration grows worse. I look around – everything in the airport is breaking down, PSAs flickering, ads going haywire, artificially enhanced objects fading, losing their color. It’s like the world is breaking apart bit by bit.

“Are you doing this?” I whisper to Michael.

“Doing what?”

“Shutting down the AR system.”

Now Michael looks at me, alarmed, a certain sort of realization on his face. “The killfile,” he says.

“The killfile,” I repeat, like a mindless idiot.

A sharp memory of Alexi hitting me on the neck during last night’s scuffle.

He’s given me the killfile. Pulled me prematurely off the grid. Why, Alexi, why?

The airport, washed of its AR layer, echoes vacantly. I can hear the distant squeak of someone’s trolley, as though coming from another world where people’s lives aren’t about to be erased. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. The men in flak jackets advance in a line, guns held up. Michael tenses, his attention split between too many things.

I think I might actually die here.

The empty strawberry box clatters to the ground. “Joe,” Alexi says softly, “I need you to trust me.” He turns to me and holds out his hand. I take it. I don’t know what else to do.

He says: “Close your eyes.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Just close them!” he shouts, and there is steel in his voice, brittle steel, fueled by the stomp, stomp, stomp of booted feet and the emptiness of the airport and I can’t think anymore so I just screw my eyes shut and pray to a God I don’t believe in that everything’s going to be alright.

And then somebody screams.

Alexi jerks me forward by the wrist and we start running. Pandemonium breaks around us, washing over the darkness I am lost in. I hear screaming and begging and crying and the sound of guns clattering close by as we go in the direction of the gates. I run face-first a warm staggering body and yelp. Alexi pulls me close, arm around my waist, and pushes me forward.

“What’s going on?” I shout, stumbling over my own feet. “Alexi, what’s happening?”

“Keep your eyes closed,” he repeats urgently. “Don’t look.”

We’re in a different space now, I can feel it: the flow of air is different, our footfalls sound different. In a dark world sounds and smells are everything. Behind us a shot goes off, glass shatters, somebody shouts and I instinctively turn back to see what happened. Alexi forces me forward: “Don’t look!” I grope for his shoulder as we keep running. My chest is starting to hurt.

And then we are out in the open, the ground rough and heavy under my feet, I’m guessing it’s asphalt and we’ve gotten to where the planes are; sweet cloying diesel fuel and the wall of sound of running engines, I have no idea how we got through all the security but there are no people around us now, I think: the panic in the air is gone. Behind us Michael shouts to Alexi, “It’s that one.”

The idling engine sounds different; I finally give in to temptation and wrench open my eyes. I am greeted by the stretched, unbelievable lines of a private supersonic jet, and my brain refuses to process it and I stop short in astonishment at everything, at how white and smooth and otherworldly it is, save for the [SynCorp] logo emblazoned on the side.

Alexi pulls urgently at my sleeve, towards the waiting roll-up steps that will bring us into the plane. A hand shoves me from behind: Michael. “Keep moving, we haven’t got much time.”

“Is that Elric Seagard’s personal jet?” I ask.

Michael doubles back, grabs me by the shoulder and shoves me in the direction he wants. “Get on the plane.”

The interior of the plane is filled with wood panelling and absurdly large chairs. “Sit,” Michael says firmly, all pretense of delicacy gone, and races up the length of the plane towards the cockpit, putting his phone to his ear. I peer out of the plane window as it pulls away from the tiny airport building, but it tells me nothing: there are no personnel in sight.

Michael is speaking clipped phrases into his phone: “Shut down all the stations in Croatia. Yes. All of them. Use my security code. Authorize it. Now. It’s an emergency.”

I look at Alexi. “What did you do?”

Alexi’s gaze is brittle and distant. Tears streak his cheeks. “I let the monsters out.”

“I don’t understand.”

“He released a virus,” Michael said, returning to us, taking a seat beside Alexi and opposite me. “Fasten your seatbelts, we’re taking off.”

“The Florida virus? But it was gone, wasn’t it? I thought…” I trail off, realizing that I don’t know what I think any more.

“You need to know two things,” Michael says brusquely. “Firstly, your brother can control his AR input and output in ways that ordinary people can’t. This extends to being able to broadcast viruses – or any other packet of information – only when he wants to.

“Secondly, what happened here was not the Florida virus. The Florida virus was a simple kill switch – shutting down the brain upon infection. Its reach was limited, as its victims had no chance of further propagating the virus – your brother being perhaps the sole exception. What happened here was a lot more insidious. This is a program that induces violent hallucinations in the infected without killing them. It was meant to spread and incapacitate.”

“Are you saying somebody deliberately infected my brother with another virus? Who the hell would do that?”

“You need consider the administration that is currently running your country. An indicted war criminal sits on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. If they possessed an asset like your brother, what do you think they would do?”

The plane picks up speed on the runway as my mind churns, pinwheeling in shock. “Are you trying to say that the government was behind this? That the whole point of the facility was to turn my brother into some sort of weaponized… walking virus bomb?”

“I’m not trying to say. I am telling.”

We leave ground with the same sort of drop-to-the-stomach I feel on plebian passenger planes. We’re in the air. Michael said we’d be safe in the air. I look at Alexi, his knuckles beyond white, his face pinched into a nearly-unrecognizable mask. Anger doesn’t even begin to describe the way I feel.

And then the plane, mid-ascent, shakes violently. Something hot and yellow goes careening past the window. “They’re bombing us!” I shout.

“No.” Michael undoes his seatbelt and jumps up. “It’s debris from a mid-air collision. The pilots must have lost control. The virus spreads quick.”

“But the pilots were a thousand miles up!” I shout desperately. What has Alexi unleashed here?

Michael runs back from the cockpit, looking grim. He straps himself back in. “The virus development was incomplete. They hadn’t finished the geotagging codes. That means it will spread indiscriminately through any open wireless connection. It’s a very aggressive program; probably most of Croatia is infected by now. I’ve asked our people to isolate the country but it may have been too late. ”

“Too late? How far would it have gone? The borders of Europe?”

He looks grim. “That’s not how the Internet works.”

“The whole world?” I’m not sure my eyes can bug out any further.

“Maybe not. China has an incredibly solid firewall in place. Some of the nations that filter their AR traffic may also get lucky.”

I look out of the window just in time to see the half the body of a passenger jet crash into the airport building and erupt in a huge flame blossom. Oh my god.

“Don’t look,” Alexi sobs, under his breath, and suddenly he’s pulling his seatbelt apart and leaping away from his seat. He crashes into Michael and flees towards the far end of the plane, towards the door.

“Alexi!” I scramble out of my seat as Michael shouts to get Alexi back into his. I can barely stand. I half-crawl half-run half-smash-my-way through the forest of plush seats, knees and elbows hitting everything in between. I have to reach Alexi. He’s backed into a small corner by the door, one hand clawing at the walls to stay upright.

Michael swears. “He’s taken my gun!”

As if he were trying to prove it Alexi holds the gun up, still in an awkward position after grabbing it off Michael’s holster. He’s shaking, or maybe it’s the plane is shaking. I can’t tell which. “Don’t come closer,” he says. “I mean it.”

I cling on to a chair for support. “Don’t be stupid, for goodness’ sake. Not after we’ve come so far.”

“You shouldn’t have saved me,” Alexi says, sinking to the ground. “Look at what I’ve done.”

He turns the gun on himself. Alarmed, I dart forward, but I lose my balance and I fall.

“I’ve doomed everybody.” He presses the barrel to his temple and squeezes his eyes shut. “I should die.”

I crawl to my feet. Fuck the world, I want to shout. Fuck it all. “You gave me the killfile,” I splutter. “You protected me from the virus.” I’m crying, like a massive idiot, but that doesn’t matter anymore. Step by staggering step I get closer. Nothing matters. I just want Alexi safe. “You saved me. I don’t care about anything else.” I hold my hand out. “Please.”

There is a moment of awful truth on Alexi’s face, a mixture of anger and sadness and terror and resignation. He drops the gun like it’s burning metal and flings himself into my arms. I pull him close, gasping with relief, and we collapse onto the nearest seats. “Buckle up,” I say, as Michael’s abandoned gun goes skidding across the deck. My little brother. I want to shield him from the rest of the world.

The plane banks suddenly to the left as another huge burning object goes past on the other side, and I hang on tight to Alexi as we tilt at a dangerous angle. I see the ground below us rearing up in the window – and I think, we’re going to crash!

Alexi wraps his arms around my waist and buries his face in my shoulder. He’s a little boy again, terrified by the monsters under his bed and sent away by his parents for waking them up. “Everything’s going to be okay,” I murmur. “I won’t let the monsters hurt you.”

“I love you,” he says. I’ve not heard him say it since I turned twelve.

The plane pulls up in a miraculous moment so sharp it knocks the wind out of my chest, and it stops shaking like it’s falling apart. The engine whine subsides as the plane rises up and above the rain of flaming debris.

“That seems to be the worst of it,” Michael tells us, and his voice sounds absurdly normal. “Twenty minutes to Belgrade – if they haven’t shut the airport or struck us off for being [SynCorp]. Pray very hard.”

I hug my brother close, and pray.

***

T-plus 17 h, Belgrade

The pre-op room is a windowless little thing that smells more strongly of antiseptic than most, bounded by walls painted in pastel colors, with ridiculously large flowers drooping all over them. I’d let it offend my aesthetic sensibilities, but I’ve learned not to hang on too much to the small details these days. Leaning in the doorway, I smile at Alexi. “How are you feeling?”

He blinks sleepily. “The killfile’s working. Everything’s going dark.”

“You’ll get used to it faster than you think. Trust me.”

Alexi pushes himself up a little as I come in and pull up a chair. “It’s funny,” he muses. “I always thought I’d be glad to stop seeing the monsters, but now that they’re disappearing I think I might actually miss them.”

“Even the ones they put in you at the facility?”

He shivers. “Good God, not those.”

I lean back in the chair. “I just got off the phone with Elena.”

He snaps to attention. “How is she? And Vladan?”

“They’re fine. Michael actually managed to shut down the spread before it got too far, so maybe only a quarter of the population got infected. Of course, the capital’s a war zone and large parts of the country are a mess, but Pula is relatively unaffected. The whole Istrian peninsula has got its act together better than most.” A blessing that Pula isn’t a crazy vertical Asian supercity that never sleeps, she had said.

“I’m glad to hear that.”

“Elena’s actually quite excited. You’re the world’s most wanted international terrorist now, you know. They’ve got your picture all over the news.”

“Is that what they’re calling it these days?”

I shrug, but it’s a happy shrug. “Vladan sends his greetings. He says he’ll send us some strawberries when things settle down.”

“We can grow our own now, you know.”

“I somehow doubt we’ll be allowed into the commune at this point. You know, being international terrorists and all.”

“There’ll be other places.”

I reach over and pat his hand. In that moment the emptiness of the world feels more like space with infinite possibilities. “You know,” I say, “I think we’re going to be fine.”


.

About the Author

A former molecular biologist, JY Yang escaped her fate as laboratory minion to lead a swashbuckling life of screenwriting and comic editing. She has written for graphic novel anthologies and children’s television, amongst other things. This is her first publication in an online zine.

JY lives in Singapore with her family and two small orange dogs, where she spends her free time indulging in art, music, filmmaking and photography. She can be found online at http://misshallelujah.net.

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