“Just gonna grab a quick kebab at the market.” With the new bulletproof vest in hand I waved at the chief as I walked past the front desk.
He gave me a dirty look through the polycarb window and punched the button of his mic. “Put that new vest on first,” his bass voice bellowed through the speakers.
I nodded. “Right after I’ve filled my stomach.”
“Give me a break, chief. I’m starving. I haven’t eaten since this morning…”
“Infect you!” he continued at gale force volume. “You, running around with a target on your chest like that. Wanna invite all those radicals to use my stooges for target practice? Make it snappy.” Glaring at me, he pointed at the vest and put his e-cigar into his mouth.
With a sigh I dropped the vest onto one of the benches along the wall. “Yes, mother.” She died when I was eleven. Covid-19, the mother of all pandemics. I started to take off my helmet. Every movement hurt my chest.
“Shall I help?” sounded the monotone voice of Lance 928 next to me.
I put the helmet on the bench and shook my head.
Carefully, I unfastened all the straps of my old vest. I had to clench my teeth when I pulled it off over my head. I held it before me.
Yep, that was a big hole right there, center mass. It looked like an exploded volcano, but with a tangle of Dyneema-frays, garnished with metal shards instead of lava. I stuck my finger into the tangle and felt the graphene chest plate on the inside. Which really wasn’t necessary. I already knew it was still in one piece. Otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten away with just a bruise on my chest.
Lance glanced over my shoulder. “Fifty cal.”
I nodded. “Hollow point. Those printed pistols are getting more and more powerful.”
“And more accurate.”
“Good thing the chamber blew apart after one shot.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t take him out sooner.”
“Not your fault.” I raised my voice so the chief could hear it. “It’s those crooked politicians that have us fighting military grade firepower with non-lethal crap.”
The chief didn’t disappoint: “You know where you can send your complaints.” He got up and pointed at his butt. “To the minister himself.”
“Patrol Five.” Sitting in our patrol pav, I yelled at the radio over the noise of the rain pattering on the dome. I rubbed my sore chest. The new protective vest seemed a tighter fit, I felt every breath. “We’ve set down in the Pomegranate Alley. I’m gonna quickly fill up with some vitro meat.”
“You don’t have to yell, Patrol Five,” barked the chief on the radio. “I’m not deaf. Copy. Call in when you’re available again.”
“Roger.” I closed my visor and hit the unlock button. The dome hinged up, the safety belts of the pav unbuckled. Drops of rain beat down onto my helmet as I got out.
“Do you want me to join you?” Lance looked at me.
“No need.” The vocoder in my visor made my voice sound just as mechanical as Lance’s. And with the helmet on, I had almost the same ‘face’. To prevent android marginalization, cops and e-cops all had to look as much the same as possible. “Be right back.” With wobbly legs and a little lightheaded, I crossed the old bridge and turned into Raspberry Street, a shop-window street, that looked like any other in modern city centers. Between the puddles, the hot tarmac was still steaming from the summer sun earlier on. I could only smell the sickeningly sweet scent of the air filter in my helmet.
As I was passing the Amazon shop window, I spotted two open umbrellas very close to one another in front of the eBay shop window next door. A woman under the first one, two men under the other, all wearing regulation face masks – mouth and nose covered, ears, eyes and forehead uncovered. Only cops were allowed to cover more than mouth and nose.
“Five feet, folks,” I called out as I approached. “Social distancing, you know.”
“I’ll get wet.” He looked at me reproachfully and challengingly. He was almost a foot taller than the guy next to him. And rather broad shouldered.
I stopped and put my hand on my taser holster, just to be safe. Before I could say anything, the shorter guy said in a friendly tone of voice: “We’re housemates.”
“All three of you?” I asked surprised.
“Yes,” they said, almost in unison.
I took my ID-scanner from my belt and pointed it at his eyes: Bas van Gorp, married to Evan Winkelman, which indeed was the name of the big fellow. When I pointed the scanner at the woman under the other umbrella, it turned out to be his sister. She had the same home address as the two men and was unmarried. Expressive blue eyes, honey blond hair… I quickly checked her health record. No not compatible. Of course not…
“Okay,” I muttered, putting my scanner back on my belt. “You’d better get out of this rain. It weakens your resistance to infection. Have a nice day.” I tapped my helmet and went on my way.
“Covid nazi!” I heard the big guy call after me.
I ignored it and walked into the market square. “De-escalation,” I could still hear the trainers at the police academy say. “De-escalation is the magic word.” To be honest, I just didn’t have the energy to bust that idiot for contempt of cop.
It wasn’t busy at the market. Nobody likes walking through the rain. The few who had defied the weather adhered properly to the five foot-rule. And when they saw me coming, they spaced out even more.
I sauntered between the trailers and cargo pavs. There was a clothing stand where the kebab trailer wagon was usually parked. I liked the look of one of the shirts: dark blue with a silver pattern in the latest Chinese style. I pointed to it on the no-touch screen. The image enlarged. The color could be varied from azure to indigo.
A door to one of the fitting rooms on the side swung open. A woman got out and stuffed a dress into a shopping bag. She gave me a nod as she walked away. The fitting room closed behind her. A hissing sound. A cloud of steam escaped from the grate in the door and the light above it changed from red to green. The fitting room was now sterilized again. But I was famished. I shook my head: no time to go trying on shirts.
A few stalls farther down, there was an automat trailer. I pointed to a giraffe croquet sandwich on the no-touch screen of one of the vending machines and swiped my debit card past the register scanner.
A little door opened and a tray with a paper plate and a sandwich came sliding out.
I lifted my visor. Giraffe was one of the juicier flavors. If I closed my eyes, I could almost believe it was one of the real meat croquettes my mum used to give me when I was a kid.
When I’d eaten half of the sandwich and looked at the screen to choose my next course, my radio bleeped. “We have to go arrest someone in a flat above one of the shop windows in Raspberry Street,” sounded Lance’s voice. The street I’d just gone down. The buildings above street level were all student apartments. We regularly busted a med-dealer there… or a prossy.
I hit the button under my shoulder and spoke into the mic. “I’ll meet you there.” I immediately turned round and started walking back. “What’s the beef?”
“Taking part in an illegal party last Thursday and spreading fake news.”
“Indoors?” I asked.
“Yes. More than twenty people in less than a thousand square feet. And two had the infection.”
I shook my head. Morons! “Mandatory quarantine?” As I turned into Raspberry Street, I shoved the last bit of sandwich into my mouth.
“Six weeks. And we have to question her and secure all the electronic devices so the DA can look into a fake news charge.”
“Evidence team underway?” As I saw Lance coming toward me, I threw the paper into a litter bin and shut my visor.
“We are supposed to assess if that is necessary.”
“Great.” That meant we were supposed to haul that crap out ourselves.
Lance stood in front of an entrance between the Walmart and Tesla shop windows. Three buttons with nameplates. Lance’s finger pointed to the middle one. When I read it, I felt like I was hit in the head with a mallet.
“Michaela Schellinger?” I stuttered.
“Yes,” said Lance.
“You s-sure she’s the one?”
“Yes,” Lance said in his usual monotone voice. “Is it someone you know?”
I tried to catch my breath, speechless.
“She doesn’t have a record according to my database,” he continued. “An informer of yours perhaps? Or someone you issued a warning to: a prossy or dealer?”
I shook my head and cleared my throat. “Don’t think so. Seemed familiar at first, but I was mistaken.” No, I wasn’t mistaken. Was that the first time in all those years that I’d lied to my partner? Well… it didn’t concern him. And it didn’t matter to the job either. If Mikey had really been that stupid, she had to be quarantined as soon as possible. “I’ll go into the back alley in case she runs. Wait until I tell you I’m there.” As I passed him, I pointed to the clothing in one of the shop windows. “In the meantime, you can enjoy this display.”
“But you know I never wear anything but my police armor?”
I chuckled. Androids are so predictable.
Four, five… if I’d counted the gates and garden doors in the back alley correctly, I should be behind the right building now. Crouched down, I peeked through the cracks in the fence, but the rear of the shop windows was shuttered. Two doors ago I’d passed the back of the Aliexpress shop window, so it should be the right place. I pressed the button of my mic. “I’m here, Lance. Ring the bell.”
I released the retention strap of my taser holster and looked left and right: nobody in the alley. I slowly pushed the gate handle down.
A faint smell tickled my nose and made my mouth water. Pulled pork. Did I really smell pulled pork? I hadn’t had that since my granny died.
Peeking through the cracks of the fence, I let go of the door handle and released the safety of the taser. A small high-pitched whistle emanated from it that got higher and higher and slowly died away. I was prepared to step aside so I’d be completely hidden by the fence.
I listened, but could only hear my own breathing in the helmet. I quickly checked if the taser was free.
Yeah, it slid up and down in the holster alright. I looked around one more time: still no one in the alley.
Suddenly, a shockwave went through me. The peace and quiet in my helmet was disrupted by Lance’s voice. “I have identified myself as police. She said ‘just a minute’.”
I held my breath. Any moment now, something was going to happen. I made a bet with myself: ten to one the back door would swing open and…
…right away I won.
I jumped back, pulled my taser and crouched down a little more.
Footsteps on gravel were coming closer. A key in the gate lock.
As I stepped a little farther back, I quickly looked around.
Nobody in the alley. It was safe to shoot if I had to.
The gate flew open. Somebody burst through it.
Mikey. It was her. Big green eyes looked at me petrified. Her always long hair had been replaced with a bob and she seemed weedier than before. But it was her… clear as day.
I didn’t react until she turned around and started running.
“Stop! Police!” I aimed the taser at her. “Stop or I’ll shoot!”
But she didn’t stop.
“Stop! I mean it.”
She ran as fast as she could.
My trigger finger hesitated. Why? This was my duty. For any other person I’d already have pulled that trigger. Come on!
“Stop, now! Or you’ll be sorry.”
Taser statistics ran through my head. The number of lethal taser shootings was less than one percent. It was a non-lethal weapon. Not deadly, but painful.
She’d reached the end of the alley. If I didn’t pull the trigger now, she’d escape… or worse: fall into Lance’s hands, and he would have no reservations. And it would already be difficult to hit her at this distance.
I clenched my teeth, aimed a little higher to compensate for gravity, and pulled the trigger.
She grabbed the pole at the end of the alley and whirled around the corner.
But my taser wires hit her calf and dug in. “Aaah!” She was lying on the ground twitching.
With my eyes shut, I kept the trigger pulled. I had to. The virus couldn’t be allowed to spread.
I pressed my mic button. “Got her. On the east side of the alley.” I released the trigger. “Stay down and relax,” I said to the girl. “We’ll be right with you.”
But her hands went to the wires in her calf.
“Stop!” I desperately cried out. “Don’t!”
But she grabbed the wires. So I pulled the trigger again.
“Aah!” Her screaming chilled me to the bone. I felt it in my own calf, just like the first time I’d had to use the taser. After that, it had become more and more a satisfying feeling: another perp I’d stopped. But this time, my stomach turned.
Finally, Lance appeared and bent over Mikey. I immediately released the trigger.
“Stay down and relax,” I said as I let the taser gun rewind the wires.
Lance already had her in cuffs when I reached them and bent over to pull the taser needles from her leg.
Her eyes were shut tight. Black tears were running down her face. Her cheeks and temples were full of smudged eye makeup. Her crying was heartrending.
But I couldn’t let my feelings show. I grabbed my ID-scanner and held it in front of her eyes.
She kept them closed tight.
“Look at me!” I said in a stern tone of voice.
She opened her eyes dismayed.
The scanner reacted right away and confirmed what I already knew.
“You’ve been identified as Michaela Schellinger,” I reeled off the standard phrase. “I’m arresting you because you’ve been spotted at an illegal party and on suspicion of spreading fake news. Do you have anything to say to that?”
She glared at me and for a moment she didn’t look like herself, like Mikey, anymore. She looked like a devil, filled with hatred, ready to poke my eyes out… or worse.
She spat at me.
The gob trickled down my visor.
Tears were still running from her eyes, but as if by magic, the crying had been replaced with defiance. She rolled and turned, tried to pull apart her cuffs – steel shackles? No way.
She thrashed about with her legs, trying to get up and kicking around.
I jumped to the side.
“Resisting arrest?” Lance looked at me.
I shook my head and grabbed her shoulder. “Come on.”
Lance followed my lead and grabbed her other shoulder. Together we helped her up.
She kept floundering and trying to kick us.
“Hey.” I shook her and leaned toward her, my helmet close to her face. “You can have your say later on. Cooperate now, otherwise we’ll have to charge you with resisting arrest as well.”
She stopped thrashing about, but kept looking at me as if she had the evil eye.
For a moment, all was still, except for the rain on my helmet.
“Spread out,” Lance broke the silence.
A group of youths were standing just a few feet away, filming us with their phones.
“Five feet!” I made a wide gesture and started to walk into the direction of our parked pav.
Lance 928 and Mikey followed my lead.
The young riffraff were muttering something, but at least they recoiled and distanced themselves from each other. They kept on filming though.
Mikey looked back at them and yelled: “Alert the media. Show them these fascists are harassing an innocent girl.”
“Scram,” I barked. Because of the vocoder, I could feel every word booming in my belly. “Or do you want us to arrest you for obstruction?”
The group skedaddled.
After we’d locked Mikey up on the custody bench of the pav, we went to her flat and threw all electronic devices in a few shopping bags. There was nothing in her flat that referred to me. With mixed feelings, I sealed her flat and put the COVID-premises sticker on the window.
When we threw the equipment in the trunk of the pav, Mikey was calmly sitting on the custody bench. She didn’t look angry anymore, she even appeared to be smirking. When we got into the pav, she said: “Are you proud of yourselves? Big, strong men. Do you get off on tyrannizing innocent little girls? Or are you all just machines?”
I pressed the lock button of the pav. The dome hinged down, the safety belts fastened themselves. I grabbed the joysticks and took off.
Visor up, I entered our little office and stopped next to Lance’s desk. All computers, phones, glasses, bracelets and other electronic gadgets that we’d found at Mikey’s were spread out in front of him. I popped open the can of power cola I’d just pulled from the vending machine and took a swig. “And?”
“Her security was feeble. She has watched fake news publications 3.806 times, visited conspiracy theory sites 1.187 times, and published inciting commentaries and blogs 796 times, using two pseudonyms: Truthlighter and Evy Beatrice Hall.”
Shaking my head, I swallowed some more power cola. She was totally fecting busted. “A clumsy joiner?”
Lance nodded. “We have enough to put her behind bars for five years, but she does not appear to be an info-lord.”
“So if she can lead us to a big fish…” I said hopefully.
He nodded. “But when I see how ineptly she has been operating, I estimate the chance that she has information we can use to catch a kingpin at less than ten percent.”
I pursed my lips and sat down at my desk, across from his. “Gist?”
“All over the board, but nothing we have not heard before. That the yearly pandemics are bunk. That they were made in government laboratories in order to oppress people. That vaccinations and cures have long since been developed but are being withheld. That the mortality rate is exaggerated…”
“So, just a dumb, naive girl, still in denial about the reality we’ve been dealing with for twenty years.”
Lance nodded. “Standard covid denier.”
Stupid and naive might be her best defense. Then maybe she could get off with some quarantine and parole. But it didn’t feel right. Naive… yeah, I could imagine that. But stupid? Then what the infect had happened to the Mikey I had known?
“Okay then.” I took another swig from the can, closed my visor, and got up.
We entered the interrogation room. She was sitting there, one hand cuffed to the table, a drink in her other: power cola, knowing her. I pointed to the cup and sat down. “Another one?” I put the file Lance had compiled for me on the table and opened it.
She put down the cup, leaned back, and wanted to cross her arms. But that didn’t work. So she laid her hand on the elbow of her shackled arm. She shook her head and gave us a defiant look.
Lance sat down next to me.
“Camera images and phone records prove that you were at an indoor party last Thursday,” I started in the monotone voice they’d taught me at the law enforcement academy. “Did you know it was an illegal party that didn’t adhere to the rules of social distancing?”
“I don’t believe I’m required to answer that.”
Under my helmet I smiled. According to her file she hadn’t finished law school. Why not, I wondered.
“And then there are the documents we found in your electronics,” I continued. “Do you have an explanation for that?”
Her eyes darted back and forth between Lance and me. As if she was studying us. She raised her eyebrows, but kept silent.
Lance pulled the file toward him and thumbed through it. Not that he needed it: of course he already had all the information in his memory banks… and a lot more than could be read in that file. But it was standard procedure: always camouflage whether you’re an android or a human. “For taking part in the illegal party, a few weeks of quarantine would have sufficed,” Lance remarked.
“You do know that there were two infected people at the party?” I added. “Do you realize the risk you were running there?”
She gave us a skeptical nod.
“And are still running,” I emphasized. “This year’s mutation is exceptionally dangerous.”
She rolled her eyes and snorted.
“And the documents,” Lance took over again. “You do know that you could be looking at five years in prison for that?”
Her hand went to her mouth, she pretended to be yawning. I knew her well enough to know she only acted that theatrically if she wanted to seem more sure of herself than she was.
“You have nothing to say?” Lance asked.
Apparently, he’d calculated it to be useless: we wouldn’t get an answer from her that would enable us to catch an info-lord or kingpin. So there was no point in wasting any more time on her and he was working towards the end of the conversation. Normally, I would have agreed with him. But this was Mikey. I had to get her to say something. Something we could use to give her a deal. Not just because she’d be in dire need of some leniency from the judge, but also because I wanted to know… needed to know… why had things gone so terribly wrong with her? She’d always been the smartest and most correct one of us. She was the first who had realized the consequences when we got the results of our DNA-test. She was the one who had forced me to obey the rules.
I observed her, looking for the slightest indication she was going to sing. But she kept schtum, looking at us indifferently.
Lance put his hands on the back of his chair. I’d known him long enough to know what that meant: end of conversation. He was going to get up now.
I thought my head would explode. Get up and leave Mikey… again after all those years? No, that was not an option for me.
I thumbed through her file. “Law, then economy, philosophy… why didn’t you complete any of your studies?” I looked at Lance out of the corner of my eye. Fortunately, he didn’t let on that I was asking a strange, unnecessary question.
Suddenly, Mikey pointed at me. “It’s you, isn’t it?”
Shivers ran down my spine. What did she mean? I froze in my seat.
She leaned forward. “The pig that shot me in the leg.” She rested her elbows on the table and glared at me, right into my eyes. She couldn’t see them through my visor, but it felt as if she could see right through me. “Have you any idea how painful that is?”
“If you hadn’t run away, that wouldn’t have been necessary.” My breathing was trembling. I wondered if the vocoder would cover that up enough.
What the infect are you doing, Julian? You’ve been doing this job for eight years. Come on, show her who’s boss!
“It’s as if someone chops off your leg with a flaming axe: that’s how that feels. Do you like hurting innocent girls? Is that what you get off on?”
“Innocent?” Lance put his hands on his lap. “So you can refute these allegations?”
Great. Nine times out of ten, perps that try to argue with the charges, only succeed in talking themselves in deeper. That was not my intention.
“Have you guys ever caught a real criminal? A burglar, a rapist, a murderer? Or are you only going after innocent citizens?”
“The number of deceased due to covid-infections last year was twenty times higher than by murder or homicide,” I recited the standard answer.
“Eighteen times to be precise.” She gave me a scornful smile. “The number of people killed because of pav crashes was even higher. But that doesn’t stop you, little boys, from fluttering about with your tax-funded little toys now, does it?”
“Do you have a grandparent... or an elderly mother?” I knew that only her dad was still alive. “Then I would consider that, before downplaying the spread of covid. Or maybe you have a boyfriend in a high-risk group?” There’d been nothing in her apartment indicating a boyfriend. “Or girlfriend or other kind of partner?” I quickly added when I realized my mistake. I could kick myself: an android would never make a mistake like that. I wouldn’t either with anyone else.
She grinned. “Are you flirting with me, officer?” She brushed her hair, licked her lips and leaned back.
“So,” Lance fortunately took over again, “you understand the importance of preventing the spread of the virus for the safety of society.”
“Safety,” she scoffed. “You guys really think that we are little kids and you’re mommy and daddy who have to protect us, right?”
“The rules we’ve mutually agreed upon in this country are…”
Like a predator she suddenly leaned forward again: as if she wanted to tear Lance’s throat out. “The rules you guys dumped on us!” She emphasized the words “you” and “us” by tapping her finger on the table. I could see the same hatred in her eyes as when I’d tasered her. I was relieved she was looking at Lance and not at me, although of course we looked identical. “We, the people, were never consulted as to whether we were prepared to give up our freedom.”
“The rules have been issued by democratically elected leaders. The electorate understands that a society can be civilized and safe only if certain bounds are set.”
“For our own good, right?” Her laugh was overdone. “‘Those who’d give up essential liberty to buy a little safety, deserve neither’. Benjamin Franklin.”
“It’s not for your own safety, it’s for other people’s safety. Or as John Stuart Mill said: ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others’.”
“You’ve committed an act of violence on me.” She made an angry gesture towards her leg. “And the state is planning on committing violence on me for years to come by locking me up in a cage.” She sighed. “Murray Rothbard: ‘the only legitimate role of violence is to defend person and property against violence. All other uses are aggression, unjust and criminal’.”
“Since it knowingly and intentionally endangers others, spreading fake news and breaking social distancing is an act of aggression,” Lance retorted.
My head was spinning: this was all way beyond me. The last time a suspect had fired philosophical drivel like that at Lance was three years ago. Gotta hand it to Mikey: I always knew she was smarter than me. But so smart?
It terrified me. Because how could someone that smart, be so dumb as to fall for fake news, go to a lethal party, and get slowly lured into the verbal mousetrap Lance was setting for her?
She shook her head. “Words don’t hurt and words don’t wound. And if going to a party were an act of aggression, flying around in a pav would be an act of aggression as well. The only way of avoiding all risk, is by not living at all. And let’s face it: in the end it’s the state spreading fake news. Everybody knows that the corona viruses were eradicated years ago.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. With that little statement, she’d just dug her own grave.
Once she started talking, there was no stopping her anymore. For half an hour she preached fake news and conspiracy theories, each crazier than the one before: that there wasn’t any covid in Eastland, that the government was the real spreader of fake news and propaganda, that the only covid-deaths in Westland were people the state had wanted to get rid of, people who’d tried to tell the “truth”…
Countless times Lance and I threw in questions to try and get her to implicate others. I tried every trick in the book. I was doubly motivated: getting her to flip was the only way for her to avoid a heavier sentence now.
But she didn’t fall for it and just kept prattling on: one bizarre conspiracy theory after the other…
At some point I’d had enough. “If you don’t like it in this country,” I blurted out. “Why don’t you just leave?”
“Ever known anyone who’s succeeded in leaving?”
I racked my brain looking for a reply.
She beat me to it: “They stop everyone at the border.”
“Yes, of course you have to apply for a visa, but lots of people leave our country every day.”
“Visa.” She laughed and shook her head. “Ever looked at the site of visawatch?”
“Who led you to that website?” I tried once more.
With a sigh she picked up her cup and looked into it. “Can I get another drink?” She nonchalantly chucked the cup away, leaned back, and rocked back and forth on her chair with a wide grin on her face.
I shut the door of the interrogation room behind us. “And?” I cautiously asked and held my breath.
“Dangerous lady,” Lance answered. “Good thing you did not give up when I wanted to.” He turned around and started walking down the hallway.
Although I knew better, I’d hoped he’d say something else. I opened my visor and took a deep breath. Wonderful fresh air… as far as air conditioned air can really be called fresh. Chloride stays in your nose and the continuous atomization of peroxide and acid smelt like piss. “Try again later? Maybe we can still get her to rat someone out.” I followed him down the hallway.
“It is worth a try, but I think the chance that she will implicate one of her collaborators is less than twenty percent. She is intelligent, far from naïve, and well versed in all conspiracy theories and hate speech towards the government.”
My heart sank.
Two cops with a suspect between them came toward us. I quickly closed my visor.
“I think chances are she already is an info-lord, but has managed to cover her tracks very well,” Lance continued. “Or maybe she was on the brink of turning into an info-lord or kingpin in the fake news networks.”
“If she hadn’t made that one mistake,” I added, ”of being stupid enough to visit that party that got her into our sights.”
“Yes, maybe we arrested her just in the nick of time.”
We stepped aside near the locker room and waited for the duo with the suspect to pass. The locker room door was open: nobody there, a number of lockers were open and the benches were littered with civvies and towels. The usual mess. Jessie’s locker caught my eye. I thought she wasn’t working today.
We nodded at our colleagues and continued on our way.
“Shall I bring her to her cell?” I asked.
“It’s probably best to let her stew in the interrogation room.” He turned into our office. “I would like to do an in-depth search on the net to see if I can find more traces of her activities. Then maybe we can ask more specific questions and charge her for a higher sentence.”
Higher sentence. Normally, that would make me happy.
As he sat down at his desk, I shut the door behind us and opened my helmet again.
Lance brushed Mikey’s electronics aside and had his screen slide up out of his desk. He opened his visor, picked up the cable of his screen from his desk and plugged it into the port that e-cops have where human cops have their mouths.
As I glanced over his shoulder, I felt the string that all human cops wear around their necks.
Images were flashing by on the screen: features of Mikey’s fake profiles, layouts of hidden sites…
If he’d find any evidence, Mikey could wind up in jail for more than five years.
My thumb and forefinger instinctively went to the bayonet connection on the string. Why?
It was Mikey’s own fault, wasn’t it? She’d chosen to go to that party and believe all that fake news.
But I was the one who’d caught her, I was the one who’d continued the questioning…
I released the key from the string and stuck it into the keyhole in Lance’s lower back. “I’m sorry, Lance.”
“Wha…” His hands came off the desk.
I turned the key and slid out the little rod. He kept sitting there, frozen like a statue, his arms hanging in mid-air, reaching like a helpless baby.
I looked perplexed at the cylindrical rod: red with two copper pins. The powerlink. The only time I’d pulled one out of an android was in training. It was a safety precaution in case an e-cop were to go ape. The last time that had happened was some five years ago. At least, that’s what we’d heard. So, every human cop had the key of his e-partner’s powerlink. Were those e-cops really there to support human cops, or were we serving them… were we the ones guarding them from crossing the line, or were they keeping an eye on us?
I hung the key with the powerlink back on the string on my neck and slipped them under my vest.
When I came back into the interrogation room, she was sitting on her chair with her legs crossed. “That took ages.” She was sitting up straight, a confident smile on her face… the same pose she used to have all those years ago, sitting at her desk in her study. Or the way I used to find her sitting in the university library when I picked her up at the end of a day of interning, still in my oil-stained overalls.
I gave her the cup of power cola.
“Finally.” She lifted it to her mouth and downed it in three gulps.
I reached for the cuff chaining her to the table ring and pressed my forefinger onto the lock.
A click signaled the cuff had identified the chip in my glove. I opened it and put it around my wrist.
“O, kinky…” She gave me a mischievous look. “You must be that sadist that shot me. Or are you the robot?” She squinted as if she could then see better. “Why grandma, what big eyes you have.”
“Come on.” I went to the door.
She remained in her seat.
I yanked her arm and opened the door.
“Ouch!” She slid off her chair and stood up. “That’s what I thought: the sadist.”
I went through the door and jerked her behind me into the corridor, doing my utmost not to be too heavy-handed.
“O, big bad wolf, where are you taking Little Red Riding Hood?”
Infect me! I cursed in my head: a pair of fellow-cops came toward us in the corridor.
“How many innocent citizens have you beaten up today?” Mikey yelled at them as they passed.
Couldn’t she just shut up for one minute?
The two cops swerved and raised a hand in greeting.
I greeted them back.
Even after we’d passed, they kept glancing back at Mikey. I could just imagine the smirk on the cop’s face. I had no choice: I had to go on until the end of the corridor.
“What did you have in mind?” she continued. “Whips maybe?”
In spite of the stress, I could feel a smile coming to my face. I heard the swinging doors on the other end of the corridor and looked back.
Yes, the two cops went through: the corridor was empty.
I immediately turned around and yanked her arm. “Follow me!”
“Ouch!” She stumbled, but kept her balance, and shuffled behind me. “Don’t you know where you’re going? You’re acting like a headless…”
“Come on.” I jerked her arm again.
“You’re really hurting me.”
“Hurry up.” Any second, someone else could appear in the corridor.
“Help!” she cried out. “I’m being…”
My gloved hand was over her mouth before I noticed it myself: something that really didn’t belong on her beautiful face.
She looked at me with big, fearful eyes.
“Ssh,” I said. The vocoder in my helmet changed it into a weird, hissing hum.
I opened my visor. “Come on.” I let go of her mouth.
The fear in her eyes changed into amazement. “Julian?” Her jaw dropped. “What are you doing here?”
Good, she recognized me. “In here.” I pointed to the locker room door.
She raced in behind me without giving me any more hassle. I quickly closed the door behind us and took off the cuffs.
“But weren’t you learning to be a pav mechanic when we were uh…?”
“This job pays better.” I pointed to Jessie’s open locker. “She’s about your size.” I took out the bulletproof vest. “Hurry up. We have to get you out of here before we get found out.”
“We’re following a lead from our suspect.” With my visor open I passed the front desk. Mikey, clad in Jessie’s uniform, was striding surprisingly mechanically next to me, just like a real e-cop. I’d only had a few seconds to explain it to her: there was no time for the full training we’d had at the academy.
The chief gave me a dirty look through the polycarb window and hit the button of the mic. “Did that chick sing?” bellowed his bass through the speakers.
I nodded. “Like a canary.”
“Hopefully not another dud.”
“Well, you never know. But if it’s on the up and up, we might take down a few info-lords.”
“Keep me posted, even if it’s a wild goose chase. I’m having a shortage of stooges in the park district.”
“If it turns out to be a washout, we’ll go there right away.”
“For infect’s sake!” He picked up his e-cigar from the desk. “You call in like you’re supposed to and then I’ll tell you where the infect I need you.” He put his e-cigar into his mouth.
I smiled. “Of course, chief.”
A blazing sun high in the sky laughed down on us as we crossed the stationhouse’s back lot towards my pav. Not a cloud in the sky.
She was a bit clumsy getting into the pav. I looked around. Fortunately, nobody gave us any thought.
I jumped in, sat down beside her and bent over between her legs.
“That brings back memories,” she said with vocoded voice.
I opened my visor and pushed her feet aside. “Move over, I have to get at that panel.” I unscrewed the two big wing bolts which fixed the panel to the floor and dropped them under her seat. That panel was the lid of the fuse box. After I’d opened it, I quickly studied the schematic on the inside. “I have to pull the fuses of the radio equipment. Otherwise, the chief can override the pav’s steering.” I used to know by heart which fuses they were.
I pulled three and checked if they were the right ones.
“Trouble?” sounded an android voice from outside the pav.
With a start, I straightened up.
Two fellow cops were looking on in surprise at what I was doing.
“No,” I answered. “There’s uh… a missing bolt.” I feverishly felt under the seat. Where had those bolts rolled to?
There! That was one of them. “Found it!” Triumphantly, I held up the panel bolt. I made a great show of screwing it back in. With a wave at my colleagues, I closed my visor and hit the lock button.
The dome hinged down, the safety belts fastened themselves. I grabbed the joysticks, took off and left the police station heading south… because that happened to be the way the pav was facing. “Where can you hide?”
“Hide?” sounded Mikey’s vocoded voice.
I let go of the joystick and put my finger on the button under her visor. “Press here to open it.”
She did and her visor flipped up. “Can we go to my flat to pick up some stuff?”
“You can never go back there… unless you wanna do a five year stretch.” Below us, apartment buildings slid past like grey blocks of concrete. The graffiti could hardly be seen from up here. There were some missing or broken windows.
“Five years? It was only a party?”
“Think, Mike. All those fake news and conspiracy theories… That’ll get you five years. And if they find any traces that you’re an info-lord, that can get you another ten.” I glanced at her. “Legit, girl.”
Her face was white as a sheet. “Can I hide at your place?”
I shook my head. “I helped you, a fugitive.” That was the moment I realized it myself: I actually helped a fugitive. I suddenly felt cold all over. “Judges are far from lenient toward cops who help fugitives. I’m in the same boat: ten years minimum.”
She looked around and shrugged. “Where can we go?”
“Think. A place to lay low: your dad, some old cabin, a safe house of one of your covid denier friends…”
“Don’t call me a covid denier!” she suddenly snapped.
I looked at her in surprise. “But you are, aren’t you?”
Her face had turned bright red and the little blue vein in her temple was throbbing. “Nobody denies there was ever a covid pandemic. I know very well what your parents died of, Julian. I liked them, too. They were good people. But that’s when the government realized: if they can make the people scared enough of something, they can get away with anything: dictatorship, tyranny, and even murder. They’ve been taking advantage of that. For decades now. They create and nurture our fear.”
“I’ve had to hear enough of that bullshit. This morning again during your interrogation. Don’t you see that that’s exactly why you’re in trouble now? Why we are in trouble?”
“Bullshit? If you think it’s all bullshit, why did you help me?”
I looked at her and wondered about it. Why exactly had I thrown away my future? “I don’t know.”
But I did know: my future ended the day I had to leave her. Whatever was going to happen now, at least we were together again. So, it didn’t matter if we would wind up in jail. Or in an early grave.
“I never should have kicked you out,” she said as if she could read my mind.
“You didn’t kick me out. You were just the first of us to understand and face reality after the mandatory DNA-test. It took me a little longer to realize it. You were always the smart one.”
“The reality that our marriage was forbidden? That even sex between us was illegal? Because any kids of ours would not be resistant enough to SARS- en corona-viruses. Is that what you mean?”
I nodded. “For the young people these days it’s easier. With that app and the database… if we’d have had that, we could have scanned our compatibility when we met the first time. Then we’d never have had a relationship to begin with.”
“Easier?” The little blue vein was throbbing again. “So, then we’d never have played together as kids… Do you really believe that?”
I looked at her and thought about it. Hesitantly, I nodded.
“And what about our privacy, our civil rights? The government doesn’t have the right to persecute us like this, to hound us and interfere in our lives.”
The government has good reasons for that, I thought. It has a duty to protect the people. But I didn’t say it.
Quizzically, she looked at me. “You don’t believe me, do you? You still don’t get it.” She threw her hands up and shook her head.
“Now where can we…?”
“So again I’m the first one to realize,” she interrupted me. “That this whole DNA-testing is bullshit. One big lie. Covid-resistance… it’s all a load of hooey. Fear mongering in order to control us. The government didn’t have… uh… doesn’t have the right to pry two people who love each other apart.”
“Who love each other… There wasn’t anything in your apartment to remind you of me. No picture, no cuddly toy, not even the seashell we picked up that night at the beach.”
She nodded. “I threw it all out. It hurt too much. Did you keep anything of mine?”
I tried to answer, but the words got stuck in my throat: I couldn’t admit it, but I couldn’t lie either.
“After all those years?” she hesitantly asked.
She put her hand on mine. “We’re going east. Covid has been eradicated in Eastland for years.”
I burst out laughing. “Of course. Was that conspiracy theory 32 or 33?”
“Believe me. I’ve studied this very well.”
“So, I have to believe the same fairytales as you? We’re not kids anymore.”
“If you have a better idea…? I don’t know any hiding places. And what’s more… if you’re right about those prison sentences… then we don’t have anything to lose, right?”
“And that border? We would be stopped there, wouldn’t we?”
She nodded. “They’ll try. But I know stories of people who got across. Subterfuge, smuggle routes… and if I’m not mistaken, four years ago someone crossed into Eastland in a pav.” She patted the dome. “These are armored, aren’t they? What better than to fight the government with than its own weapons?”
“This pav is unarmed. I’m not with any of the military police departments.”
She shrugged. “Got a better idea?”
“Hold on.” I pushed the joystick to the left and made a sharp turn to the east.
Concrete blocks changed into terraced houses with gardens and picket fences. And they gave way to polders and elongated dikes, forests and meadows, brooks, rivers and little lakes: the territory of the nature reserve society. Never before had I realized just how flat our country was.
Mikey was yapping away the whole time about all the things we’d been up to as kids.
That abandoned car we’d found in the bushes with flat tires and overgrown with moss. That was back when ordinary people could still afford cars. The rear hatch had been open. So we’d crawled in and played rally driver. We raced in Africa, China and America… and just as we were doing a North Pole expedition, Mikey discovered the car didn’t open anymore. I ended up breaking off a handle and smashing a side window.
That cabin we’d built in the meadow from dead branches and leaves, where we’d run away to after my mother died. That’s where we’d stay, secluded and far away from all people, from all infections. Just the two of us for the rest of our lives. Until the next morning, when we were out of power cola. When we got home, there was no one there: my dad, her parents and I don’t know how many friends, family members and acquaintances were out looking for us.
It felt now just like the old days.
She talked, I listened.
She made the plan, I carried it out.
She was punished, I was punished.
The flat countryside had long since given way to woody little hills when she suddenly cried out: “What’s that?” She pointed up and to the right.
I peered at the little white clouds in the distant blue. “What do you mea…” Yes, a dot in front of the clouds. Dark blue. Was it just hanging there?
No, it slowly moved to the left. Well, at least it looked slow. It was still far away.
“Do you suppose he can see us?” she asked.
“Sure. Definitely on his GPS and radar screens.”
“Then why don’t we see him on our GPS?” She pointed at the screens, which were all black.
“Because I disabled all radio equipment, remember?” I regretted having pulled all the main radio fuses. If I’d taken the time to knock out just the telecontrol, the audio-reception and GPS screens would still have worked. Then I could have seen them coming.
I scanned the sky in front of us.
“Can we evade him?”
I pointed straight ahead. “There’s the border.”
I saw something move in the corner of my eye. “Another one!” I pointed slightly to the left. A dark blue dot had just become visible as it passed in front of a little cloud. I looked at the rear view screens.
The sun was low but still blindingly bright. So, I couldn’t see if there were any pavs coming up from behind. I checked if our seatbelts were snug, switched the autopilot off and grabbed the joysticks.
“Turning back?” she asked.
I shook my head. “Aren’t we supposed to go to the border?”
The two dark blue dots in front of us grew bigger. Yep: pavs. In two shades of blue.
“Border patrol,” I said.
“Are their pavs armed?”
“There are more.” She pointed at the rear view screens.
Three blue pavs coming up from behind.
To the left and right of us, I saw more blue pavs pop up. Straight ahead another two.
“We’re surrounded,” Mikey said before I could.
“Hold on tight.” I rammed the joystick down and went into a dive. I’d never had any combat pav training. That was for different departments. But fortunately, I’d been part of the tech school’s racing team when I was learning to be a pav mechanic. That was around the time the name “pav” was introduced, short for “personal aerial vehicle”. Those things had once been known as “passenger drones”.
The pavs in front of us dove too.
Skimming the treetops, I raced right toward a hill. Two of the oncoming pavs were behind it now.
Just before the hill, I veered off to the left and flew at a constant height along its edge.
Just one more oncoming pav to be seen: a little to the left. The other three were all somewhere behind the hill.
I quickly glanced left, right and on the rear view screens: the pavs behind were tailing me at about the same distance, the pavs on the side were far away. “I only have to avoid the oncoming pavs,” I yelled. “Then the sky to the border is clear.”
Suddenly, a pav emerged right in front of me from behind the hill. It was following the edge of the hill, just like me, and was heading straight for me.
I pulled up a little.
“Julian,” Mikey called out and grabbed my arm.
Fortunately, my grip on the joystick was too strong.
The border patrol pav pulled up too, and was still heading for us.
I descended sharply.
So did he.
I yanked the joystick back and went into a steep climb. In front of me only blue sky.
In the corner of my eye, I saw him making the same climb.
We were going to hit…
Now! I took a deep breath, rammed the joystick to the left, went into a spin and clenched my teeth.
We twirled through the air. It felt as if the G-forces were tearing my body apart. White, blue, green and grey were spinning past. I saw stars. My vision narrowed to a tunnel.
I pushed the stick forward and all the way to the right, and gasped for air.
The twirling was less. The stars as well. White changed to clouds, green to treetops.
Wait, wait… now!
I carefully pulled back on the stick.
The world was still spinning around us. Dizziness, or was the pav still twirling? I was nauseous, gastric acid flowed into my mouth. I swallowed it down. The horizon… where was the horizon?
I carefully stabilized the pav until it was flying horizontal again.
Treetops straight ahead!
I pulled up.
We grazed some branches.
But got away with it. I breathed a sigh of relief and checked my heading and the location of the border patrol pavs.
We’d veered off a little to the north. I corrected the heading and applied full power. The border patrol pavs were not far behind… but far enough. “We’re gonna make it!” I pointed. The river past the treetops was already in sight: the border between Westland and Eastland.
No reply. I looked at Mikey.
She sat with her head tilted, white as a sheet, her eyes closed.
“Mikey!” I activated the autopilot and tapped on her cheek. “Mike.”
She squinted and blinked. “W-what happened?”
She opened her eyes and looked around dazed.
I pointed to the river again. “There’s Eastland. They can’t stop us now.”
She peered into the distance. The color slowly returned to her face. “We’re gonna make it,” she muttered, smiling.
“I hope you were right about Eastland.”
A deafening bang reverberated through the pav. The motors were howling and rattling. The pav went into another spin.
“What are you doing?” Mikey cried out.
I tried to correct.
Smoke filled the cockpit, I smelled something burning. The dome was cracked, a hissing sound behind me, all the dashboard screens black.
I looked back: through a jagged hole I could see blue sky, white and black clouds and orange flames. “Shut your visor and brace yourself!” I closed my own visor and reached for the button on her helmet.
The G-forces made me miss the button… and again.
I lowered my head, closed my eyes and braced myself.
A bang against the dome. Everything started shaking. A tearing sound… everything became black.
“Julian.” Mikey’s voice sounded very far away. “Julian.”
I tried to look in the direction of the sound.
“Julian.” It sounded closer by. But I still couldn’t see a thing. My eyes… I opened them, and stared right into her green irises. She’d already taken off her helmet, and apparently mine.
“What’s that?” I moved my hand to her forehead and wiped off the blood. A cut.
She just shrugged with a smile.
The dome above us was almost completely gone: a large gaping hole, flanked by ragged edges. We were sitting between branches and ripped-apart pieces of the pav. You couldn’t tell where the pav stopped and the tree began. Much of the dashboard was gone, a prop was hanging in a tree a few yards down. Behind us, trails of smoke were rising up, but I could only smell the forest air: freedom.
Apart from a few scratches and bruises, we could crawl out of the pav wreckage unscathed, and then slog away through the dense forest on foot.
I pushed away a branch, ducked underneath another one, and stepped over the undergrowth.
“You’re sure we were shot down?” Mikey grabbed the branch I’d bent out of the way and followed me through the gap.
“Then why haven’t they caught us yet? Have we passed the border already?”
I shook my head. “This forest is too dense.” I tried to make a large gesture, but my hand banged into a tree. “No way a pav can land here.”
“So we’re safe?” she asked, laughing nervously.
“Not yet.” I ducked under a thick branch.
“But we have crossed the border, haven’t we?”
“I saw us flying over checkpoints and barbwire before we went down.” She pointed behind us. “At the beginning of this strip of forest.”
“Possibly, but officially the border is in the middle of the river.” I pointed forward. “A few more yards to go.”
“No, we’re safe,” she decided. “They can never squeeze through this forest faster than us.”
“Yep,” I said to put her mind at ease. “Come on. We have to find a way to get across the river before dark. Maybe there’s a boat or raft somewhere. Or some sort of bridge.”
I heard something. “Wait.” I froze with my hand up and listened intently. What was that sound? That murmur: was that what I’d heard?
“Flowing water!” She coughed. “That’s the river.”
My heart skipped a beat. “You’re ri…” I gestured for her to be quiet.
A different sound: humming. Staccato, short. And again: hum, hum, hum… rhythmic humming. It came from the other direction: about where we’d left the wreck. A branch snapped… rhythmic humming again. Those were servomotors! Servomotors of…
I grabbed her arm and pulled her. “Hurry,” I hissed and jumped through the undergrowth.
Twigs were lashing my body. I pushed them aside for Mikey.
She followed me through the brush. “What’s wrong?”
“Robot dogs. They set robodogs on us.”
We struggled on as fast as we could.
With each branch, every tree we passed, the murmur of the river got louder. But so did the hum of the robodogs’ legs. There seemed to be no end to the forest.
Suddenly, my foot slipped. I could just hold on to a branch. That’s when I saw it: “The river.” I was standing on top of a small incline, holding on to the last tree. “We’ve made it.” I reached behind me to Mikey.
She smiled and grabbed my hand.
Behind her, polished metal was gleaming between the green.
I pulled her through the last branches. “Run.” I tripped, slid down the embankment and ran toward the little beach.
No boat, raft or bridge anywhere in sight. Nothing useful for getting across.
On the other side of the river, silhouettes came running: just shadows in the dusk. They waved at us and beckoned. They were shouting something. I don’t know if I imagined it, but it sounded like: “Over here, swim!”
I threw away my gloves and started to unclasp my vest. “Get rid of that armor. Or you’re gonna sink.” I glanced back.
She was following closely, gloves already off. Four robodogs not fifty yards behind us were gaining fast.
Throwing away my vest, I waded into the river, unbuckled my pants, yanked them down and lost my balance. I fell forward into the water.
For a moment, it was all quiet around me. Water everywhere. I struggled to get up and kicked to get rid of my pants.
My boots… I’d forgotten about my boots.
The first robodog was very close.
Mikey was standing next to me in the water. With a bloodcurdling scream she hurled one of her boots at the creature.
As I feverishly tried to pull off my boots, lying in the water, the first robodog pounced.
I tried to scramble away, but the beast was going to land right on top of me.
In the middle of its leap, an unwieldy black thing tore it right out of the air. Mikey’s other boot!
The robot beast plunged into the water a few yards away.
With all my might, I pulled off my first boot and took off my trouser leg.
The second robodog: it bit into the point of my second boot and started to pull me back on land.
I was kicking and thrashing about.
Mikey kicked against the robot beast’s body.
But it pulled me back relentlessly.
The other two robodogs were almost on me as well.
“Go, Mikey, swim!”
She shook her head.
“Save yourself!” I shouted.
But with tears in her eyes she kept kicking the robot. She screeched.
That’s when my pants floated over the head of the robot animal, smothering it. And suddenly… my other boot came off as well, taking with it the robodog, its teeth still clenching the tip, floundering and shaking to free itself from my pants.
The rest of my pants came off as well, I turned around and dove, Mike dove into the river next to me.
We swam, swam and swam without looking back, only forward. At those shadows on the beach waving at us, beckoning us and egging us on.
At the far bank, strong hands lifted us out of the water. They were wearing overalls in all colors of the rainbow and wrapped us in towels.
Mikey had a coughing fit. I suppose she’d gotten some water into her lungs.
I couldn’t utter a word. I could only laugh. As I looked back, I saw the robodogs on the other bank. And then I laughed even louder.
Mikey was the first one to find the right words. Through her coughing she said to the folks: “Thank you, thank you.” And when the coughing subsided: “We are applying for asylum in Eastland.”
It wasn’t until that moment that it all felt real. We’d actually done it and could never go back. I took a good look at our saviors and stopped laughing.
They were wearing mouth masks.
The little room in which I sat bore a striking resemblance to the interrogation rooms back at our station house. Grey walls, a table anchored firmly to the floor and some simple chairs. Even my shackle fixed to the table was the same make and type as the ones we used. At least, I was warm and dry. But what I also was, was alone.
When the door swung open, I was surprised to see only one person come in: a lady in informal clothes. Jeans of an expensive brand and a strawberry red blouse with a complicated pattern. Strange that people wore such bright colors here. Her mouth mask was just as red. And her hair was as blue as her jeans.
I jumped up. “Where’s Mikey?”
“Won’t you sit down?” She made a calming gesture. “You must be tired after the arduous journey you’ve been through.” She looked at me benevolently and closed the door behind her. Was she really going to question me all alone?
She sat down across from me and laid down a file in front of her.
I hesitated, but decided to sit down. What could I accomplish, chained to the table? I didn’t have any gloves with chips here to open any cuffs with.
“My name is Tabitha Koster,” she started. “I’m coordinating cossetter for new arrivals.”
I frowned… did this lady even speak the same language? “Mikey, my uh…”
“Your traveling companion?” she asked.
“She’s doing well. There’s no need to worry about her.”
“Where is she?”
“A colleague is looking after her. I’m your personal contact.” She took a little card from her chest pocket and put it down onto the table before me. “I can be reached here at all times.”
The little card had her name and address. I shook my head. “Why aren’t we together? We have to be together.”
“You will be. In three weeks.”
I opened my mouth to say something.
She raised her hand and gestured for me to be silent. “After all those struggles and hardships you’ve had to go through, those few weeks of quarantine should be no problem, should they? And you have to realize… we cannot take any risks with hazardous pandemic pathogens. We cannot release them into our society. We have a duty to protect our citizens and society… as well as our potential new citizens.” She pointed at me.
“Quarantine?” Baffled, I shook my head. “But she sai… I mean I’ve heard uh… they say there are no viruses in Eastland.”
She burst out laughing. “No viruses is a tad exaggerated. But we do try our utmost to keep them out, at least the most dangerous kinds. Especially covid-variants… I suppose that’s what those pandemic viruses are called where you are from as well?”
“So, covid-viruses are real?”
She looked surprised. “Of course they exist. Unfortunately.”
It felt as if I was deflating. I knew it: no matter how smart Mikey was, she still wasn’t smart enough not to get conned.
“Am I sick? Or Mikey?”
“If you and your lady friend don’t develop any symptoms in the coming weeks, you’re not afflicted. And then you are released and can be together again and free to move about in our country and build a new life here.”
Together and free. I felt the smile coming to my face. “But uh… didn’t you have medicine to cure covid and other infections?”
She shook her head. “We have a vaccine for the covid strain that’s circulating now and for most strains of the last years. Well… strictly speaking it’s not a vaccine As it turns out, real vaccines are not always effective for this class of viruses. That’s one of the reasons why they’re so virulent and dangerous, and why we’re doing everything we can to keep them out of our country. But we do have a remedy that boosts your resistance to the infection, if you were to get it. So, then usually the illness won’t be too bad. And that medication also makes sure that your immune system doesn’t… let’s say: overreact and attack your own body, which is often the biggest problem with many of these viruses.”
“So, can you give me that shot right away?” I asked. “And Mikey, too?”
She shook her head. “We can’t do that until we’re certain that you’re not coming down with anything. The injection has the opposite effect if you’re already infected. So you and your friend aren’t getting out of a little bit of quarantine.”
“Then why aren’t we allowed to be together? If one of us was sick, we’d have already infected each other.”
“Possibly.” She pursed her lips. “But we cannot be sure of that. And so we don’t want to needlessly endanger one of you.” She leaned forward to me and looked me deep in the eyes. “Listen, I get it: it’s difficult to be separated from your loved one. But it’s for everybody’s good and will only last for a few weeks: they’ll be over before you know it. Surely, you can bare that?”
I sighed and gave her a resigned nod.
“Excellent.” She opened the file. “And in the meantime, we have a lot of work to do of course. What kind of person are you, how and why did you come here? We have to know all that before we can turn someone loose in our society. So, let’s start with: what can you do? Have you learned a trade for example?”
“Yeah, it was weird being on the opposite side for once,” I said laughing as I adjusted the little screen on the nightstand next to my bed. “The whole time I was thinking what traps were hidden in her questions. But in the end, I couldn’t find any.”
Mikey’s image on the screen became clearer. She was laughing as she looked into the lens of her own device, but then she started to cough fitfully.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
She nodded, sat upright in bed and coughed in her elbow. Legs crossed, as usual. As far as I could tell, her little quarantine room looked an awful lot like mine. Light green walls with a few paintings. A bed, a desk and a toilet. A prison cell, but more cheerfully decorated. Her pajamas were identical in model to the suits I remember from ninja-movies. Only, hers were a cacophony of purple and bright blue, mine were red and yellow. “I’m just exhausted from all that running.” She panted and gasped for air. “I’m not used to that.” She yawned.
I automatically yawned, too. “Then maybe we’d better go to sleep now? Recover from all that running and stress?”
She nodded. “Seems like the smart thing to do.”
“See?” I said with a grin. “I can be smart, too.”
She laughed. “Don’t sell yourself short. You were the one who was smart enough not to get in trouble with the authorities. If I’d have done the same thing, you wouldn’t have had to free me.”
“But then we’d never have gotten back together again,” I added.
The smile she gave me reminded me of when our friendship had first turned into a relationship. She was happy now, finally happy again.
“Goodnight, hon.” I pursed my lips and made a smacking kiss in the air. “I’ll call you in the morning.”
“Sleep tight, sweetie.”
I turned off the screen. “Lights out.” The lamps on the ceiling switched off, I turned on my side and pulled the covers over me.
It was on the morning of the third day of our stay in quarantine. She didn’t answer when I called her. I kept trying. For hours. What else could I do?
Yeah, there were books, movies and music I could access via the screen. But all that didn’t interest me.
After a few hours, a knock on my door. I was just doing some pushups.
“Come in!” I got up.
The door swung open and Tabitha came in. This time she wore an orange blouse and mask. “I have some worrying news. Maybe you’d better sit down.”
I grabbed the back of the chair by the desk. “Is something wrong with Mikey?”
“She’s become ill. It’s covid.”
“Where is she?” I stepped forward.
She held out her hands in a defensive pose.
The door behind her was still open. Two broad-shouldered men in masks were standing in the corridor looking in.
“You cannot go to her. She’s very contagious. But she’s being taken good care of. She’s in our Deep Care Department.”
“Will she recover?”
She frowned. “We’re doing our best. She’s receiving the best medicine and nursing. But I won’t lie to you: she’s very ill.”
“What are her chances?” I pulled the chair from under the desk.
“Fifty-fifty… maybe a bit lower. She doesn’t have a lot of resistance to the illness.”
I sagged down into the chair. “So we can never be together again?” I stared at the floor.
“Where did you get that idea? When she recovers and the illness is all gone, you can be together again of course.”
I was dumbfounded. “But what about my resistance? Our immune systems together…”
“You’re not ill,” she interrupted me. “Not yet. And with every day that the illness doesn’t reveal itself, the probability increases that you won’t get it.”
I racked my brain. “So if I do get it, then we won’t be allowed to be together again?”
She furrowed her brow. “Maybe I haven’t been clear enough. If you are both healthy in a few weeks time, there’s nothing standing in the way of the two of you being together.” She shrugged.
I couldn’t fully wrap my head around it. So I just cleared my throat and said in a hoarse voice: “Take good care of her.”
She nodded and squeezed my shoulder. I wondered if touching me was legal. The rules and regs here in Eastland were impossible to understand.
Almost exactly a week later, she was standing in my room again. “I’m sorry. We’ve tried everything, but the infection was too persistent.”
I just kept staring at her shoes: mint green with jaunty red and orange little symbols. Strange country, Eastland.
It smells just as fresh here as in the forest at the border of Westland. Fortunately, the trees are farther apart here. Gravel paths meander between trees and graves. You can easily walk down them, even when you’re with some other folks. Keeping a distance of five feet if someone passes you… no, the path is not quite wide enough for that. But all this was ingrained and it sticks with you, although it’s not necessary in this country. There’s no covid-police forcing you to do this stuff, no dangerous diseases requiring it. The people don’t wear masks in public here. They only wear them if they have to deal with possibly infected people, like in the quarantine unit I spent three weeks in.
I stroll with my bucket of water and a sponge in one hand and a red rose in the other to the white headstone. Maybe it looks a bit boring compared to the red, yellow and blue gravestones which are the norm around here. Maybe it’s me who’s just a bit boring.
I kneel once more at the grave, put the bucket and rose down. “You were right, Mikey. Eastland is more beautiful than you can imagine. All buildings have different shapes and colors, one wilder than the other. There are extremely large buildings as well as tiny ones. If there’s a plan behind it, I haven’t been able to spot it.”
I wet the sponge and start scrubbing the headstone. “By the way, there aren’t just shop-window streets here, but also streets with actual shops. You know: just like on the net. But these are buildings you can really walk into, together with other people. And you can touch all the stuff that’s for sale there and look at it from all sides. And you can fit clothes in fitting rooms that don’t have to be disinfected after every customer.” Shivers are still running down my spine just from thinking about it. “Yeah, that really seems unnecessary here. Not that they’re not working hard to combat the pandemics, you know. They’re just using a different method. Seems to work.”
I get up and clean the part where her name is inscribed in golden letters. “And then the markets: they’re not just filled with trailers and cargo pavs, but also with stalls with real salesmen behind them: people selling you stuff. They hand things to you and you pay them. And the luxury pavs… yeah, I’m sure I told you about those. But I still can’t believe it: those things aren’t just for the government here. Ordinary people can travel in pavs. And you wouldn’t believe those pavs. Remember that I’m working at that garage now? They’re only letting me repair and maintain the older pavs. Because the so-called ‘modern’ pavs we had back in Westland…” I laugh. “Well, we were at least ten years behind the technology they have here. But I swear: I’m gonna learn all that as well. And I’m saving up: if I do my best, I may be able to buy my own pav in a few years time.”
With a deep sigh I drop the sponge into the bucket, pick up the rose and put it onto the grave. I swallow the lump in my throat. “You’re right, honey: it’s paradise here.”