Unfiltered Mask [Short Story]

Humanity has destroyed its planet and become infertile. Living in unhygienic complexes under an authoritarian government, a pandemic would bring an end to the doomed civilization.
[Short Story, 35 pages, 11795 words]

Unfiltered Mask

1

Yan pulled off her gas mask and walked outside the decontamination chamber. Still wet, she walked towards one of the lockers to get out of her hazmat suit. She stored everything inside and picked up the large backpack that she had carried all day. She needed a proper shower but was running late, and nobody likes delays. She passed a few more corridors with retina-scans and ID controls; then she saw the first people inside the complex. The guards, sitting behind a thick glass wall. They were doing a respectful nod as she passed. A few more corridors, and she finally reached the elevator that would lead up into the building’s housing complex.

The elevator was only getting her from the basement to the ground floor. It was secured with more gates at entry and exit. Afterward, she had to take a few more elevators to get to the apartment she was ordered to. It was ironic how meticulous the security and hygiene standards were for her, while inside the complex, practically none existed. There were official standards, but no one cared, and no infrastructure or medical equipment was there to support it in the first place. Sometimes she wished she could wear her suit inside as well.

The elevator reached the ground floor. She saw the never-ending rows of floors through the glass of the elevator. The building itself was one of the larger ones; almost 50 thousand people lived in the pyramid-shaped construction. There was a whole economy running inside the complex—stores, restaurants, markets, and parks that stretched over many floors. While most of the stores were completely automated and run by robots, the small markets were still run by humans. They were the biggest hygiene problem in every complex. None of the people were cleaning their wares or themselves. Blood and feces from animals covered the floors next to vegetables and clothes. The government food program had cut out vegetables after they switched to nutrient bars and powder. They were the compressed version of vegetables and cheaper to mass-produce. They were even healthier than regular vegetables, but most people were not willing to eat them. Even now, decades after they had been introduced. People sold them or used them for animal food.

Most people had enough money to get vegetables from the markets, but not enough to buy animal products. Many held living animals and fed them the bars while eating the vegetables from the markets. It was widespread to see chicken living inside apartments. Larger animals were rarer to see, mostly because they were technically illegal. But Yan had seen pigs and even people raising cows before, making the whole hygiene problem a lot worse. Having animals shit and pee inside your apartment was the perfect way to get sick. The government was too scared to take proper measures against markets and animal ownership, as both were still deeply rooted in the culture. And if there was one thing the government wanted to avoid was getting people angry about their culture. It was a miracle that there had not been a pandemic over all those years. All prior diseases were contained within their complex, and only very few people had died.

Her tracker showed her the way towards the apartment. It was on the 145th out of 351 floors. The lens on her retina made her see the glowing path she had to follow—one more elevator.

She ringed the bell of the apartment and started her routine. She disinfected her hands and put on protective gloves. She got out the large glasses showing her bacteria and virus hotspots on surfaces and the air. There were not enough facemasks produced for her division, so she often went out without any.

A young woman opened the door. She saw the emblem of the health department on Yan’s clothes and let her in. The small apartment was surprisingly clean. No animals or pets, and even her glasses showed no hotspots of bacteria. She quickly checked the bathroom. They had soap, and it had been used. She went into the living room where the young boy was playing with his father. They had VR goggles on and were constructing a large castle in the living room. They looked immersed and happy. She waited a moment till she walked into the barrier that made them see her through their goggles.

Both took off their goggles, and the boy took a seat on the couch. He was used to it and waited for her to start. It was the first time she had seen him, but he was smiling at her. She got out her small tools and started to measure. He was clean; no virus or infection. She took a small sample of blood from his finger. The needle was so small; he did not even notice. Her device whirred up and took a bit longer than usual.

His base level was fine, but there was an unknown component in his blood. She had to redo the test. She received the same result and followed the standard procedure for such a case by measuring his parents; they were clean. She joked with them to lighten the mood. There must be some error within the system; it happens every once in a while. She had to take a proper blood sample, though. It was probably nothing, but if they noticed any health-related changes in themselves or him, they should not hesitate to contact the government.

She left the apartment exhausted. Every 200th test was a false error that had to be thoroughly checked and reported. It was additional work that would take at least another hour of her free time. The results were already synched with the servers, so she had to quickly get the boy’s blood to one of the labs. At least there was a lab, meaning her detour would not take all night.

2

The news woke her up at noon. Her detour had taken till late into the night. Her sample had been retested several times before she was allowed to go home. At least all hours after midnight were subtracted from her working hours.

The news host was reporting on the yearly government report. Produce had been improved by 21%, and living standards had risen by 4%. The atmosphere’s pollution levels were 3% lower than last year, and the radiation hotspots had become 8% less active. The host did not use the raw numbers and only compared them to the numbers from last year for a good reason. Pollution had to drop by 98% and radiation by 93% for people to survive outside without a suit. For living outside long-term, the numbers could be rounded up to 99%. Even at the current pace, it would take at least 200 years before anyone could walk around outside again.

Yan walked to the other side of her one-room apartment and made herself a coffee. The host now came to the highlight of the report: 5130 children had been born this year. That is 1130 more than last year, but it was still in the range it had been over the past years. All the technical progress that had been hyped up had not brought any success. It was dire news. The population of over two billion would reach zero before anyone could ever walk outside again.

She was still part of the old generation, born before the fertility rates had dropped. She remembered her dad showing her pictures and videos of how the world looked before the environmental problems spiraled out of control. Back then, such media was not censored and banned yet. He had always told her how the government had gotten a lot stricter over the years. It was more efficient for sure, but no human rights were left. If they wanted, they could erase you with the press of a button.

Back then, she was too young to understand the panic of the dropping fertility rates. Over only five years, yearly births had dropped from over 100 million to under 100 thousand. Scientists had found out relatively quickly that the changing environment had somehow changed everyone’s genes. Humanity had reached a point of no return, and 99% had become permanently infertile. Or rather, everyone had developed a 99% chance of not producing healthy sperm or eggs. Gene editing, artificial fertilization, and other technological breakthroughs had not helped.

All this had happened decades after humanity had driven nature against a wall. The weather and atmosphere changed rapidly, and mega-complexes had to be built. They had thick walls, shielding from radiation and pollution, but they took long to make, even for an autocratic and authoritarian government. Billions had died around the world, and almost every resource was getting scarce. Developing and deploying new ways of producing materials and food required time that many people did not have.

She was part of the 30% that had lost their reproductive system. When she turned 15, her period stopped. Only a year after it had started. She accepted it and moved on. After her dad died from lung cancer, she had taken his job in the health department. It was her job to check on the children and make sure they developed healthily. The parents were forced to participate in educational classes about hygiene and health, but most did not bother and lived as they did before.

She was not able to do anything about it. If she reported the parents, she would get punished instead because she had failed her job. At the same time, the government was reporting that the courses and programs helped. Questioning or saying something different would result in things way worse than losing her job.

She finished a quick meal and took a shower. Soon she had to get back to the lab for the detailed results. While she had the day off, she still needed to check on her open cases; standard procedure. At least she could meet her friends on the way back.

She arrived at the lab late afternoon. The tunnels and small parts above ground had higher radiation levels than usual and delayed her arrival. The thick sandstorm she had to walk through to get to the other complex had exhausted her. This time, she took a shower. The lab was located further into the complex. The more she walked away from the entrance and security area, the more run down the complex looked: dirt, litter, and graffiti. She reached the lab and accessed it with her ID card. The young man working in the lab was taking a nap on the couch in the corner of the room. He did not notice her.

It was not worth waking him up. She sat down in front of the large monitors and searched for her results. They were negative. Only negative? Usually, there would be a note of why her tool had given her false results. Now she could not be sure if it was a database error or if the reader of her tool was malfunctioning. Getting her tool checked was not counted as work time and would take almost an entire day.

Sometimes she wondered why she was still doing this job. Most people had no job and were getting supplies and money from the government. They could do whatever they want all day. At least her job heightened her living standard. She had access to many more parts of the internet than the average citizens and could skip most bureaucracy nonsense. If she wanted food, medicine, check-ups, or just buy some equipment, she skipped the line and could just take it or get it delivered the next day. Everyone else had to wait weeks for an answer that rarely resulted in approval.

She copied the results to her ID and her multitool, then uploaded them to her report. Finally, it was done. Now she only had to get back to her complex and hope that her friends were not already drunk or stoned before she arrived. Alcohol and drugs were rare and illegal, but only for people outside the government. She closed the lab door quietly.

Of course, her friends had started without her. She had been three hours late. They tested out some hybrid drugs from the lab that one of her friends was working in. It felt like some absurd chemical mix of Psilocybin and Adderall. Everyone was open and filled with love, but at the same time, paranoid, hyperaware, and restless. It was one of the less enjoyable trips. All of them were wholly exhausted afterward. Nobody went home that night or in the morning. In the late afternoon, the group slowly started to split off, her leaving the earliest.

She had to work the next day, but she did not manage to do anything once she got home. She listened to some music and went to bed early.

 

3

It had been 14 days since her tool had malfunctioned, and there had not been another error since. She had forgotten about getting it checked, but the next routine check was in a week anyway. The encounter with the boy was still stuck in her head. One of the cleanest apartments she had seen, but the boy sick. It could happen, but never under those conditions.

She checked her multitool. Her next stop was close by the apartment of the boy. Something in her wanted to check on the boy again. Just give him a routine scan for her curiosity. It was not forbidden to do random checks; it was actually encouraged. She checked the time. She was way ahead of schedule. She stopped the elevator and made her way to the apartment. She walked down the long hallway: apartments on the left, large windows on the right. She could look down several floors and see a small park and some stores and restaurants. People were sitting outside eating. The artificial lighting from above turned the complex of concrete into a more pleasant place.

She arrived at the apartment. A large red tape covered the entrance. It was police tape. She quickly got her multitool out to check for a report of the apartment. No report. Was it an unofficial investigation? She put on her glasses and mask. If there had been someone here within the past hours, there would be living bacteria and traces around the door, but there was nothing. She checked the door; it was open. She slowly pushed it. The apartment was spotless—no bacteria or traces, but also no furniture. Everything inside had disappeared. She ripped the red tape and walked into the apartment. She had red tape herself and could seal the apartment afterward.

She walked through the rooms. It looked like the family had moved and cleaned the entire place, but the red tape suggested otherwise. Then she noticed the stench in the air. She remembered. It was the disinfectant for hospital patients and areas under quarantine. Had they been infected? Her heartbeat increased. She tested herself. Negative. No abnormalities or infections. Her last test was seven days ago. This meant that even with an incubation time of two weeks, she was clean.

The slight panic now turned into paranoia. If the government was doing an unofficial investigation, disinfected and cleaned the entire apartment, something horrible was going on. She made sure to leave no traces in the apartment, then went to the next patient. She had to put her thoughts on hold until she was done for today.

She locked the door and turned on her PC. She took a quick shower. Still naked and half wet, she sat on her chair and connected to the health department. She spent a while digging through official releases, documents, and reports, but no results. Not only had the investigation in the apartment never happened, but she also never officially tested the boy because the boy and his family did not exist. At the rate of sweat now being produced by her body, she would have to take another shower before going to bed.

She had done her courses on diseases and pandemics and could not ignore the red flags popping up in her mind. But still, as long as there were no reports of a new disease, she could not do anything. Simultaneously, the government could just suppress and censor everything about it, so nobody could know until the bodies would pile up.

She went to the bathroom and took out the small pills from her friend. They calmed her down almost instantly. She did some breathing exercises and meditated before she went to bed. Getting in a panic would not help the slightest in this situation. She did not have enough information to determine anything. She would think about it with a rested mind in the morning.

 

4

Her morning coffee got interrupted by a message from her boss. She was ordered into his office at the beginning of her shift. Meetings like these rarely happen. She had not seen him for several months now. She wondered what he had been up to. Once she got dressed, she made her way to the floors underground, occupied by the government and police. They had a strict procedure, and she had to leave all her belongings behind before getting into the main offices. She passed the large control room where the walls were filled with monitors, showing camera feeds throughout the complex. They were automatically detecting the faces and showed the person’s name, ID, and walking path. Several screens showed current air, water, and electricity levels and flows. Some more showed the recent activity and path tracking of the people living in the complex.

At the end of the large control room, there was a small office on the right side. Her boss was already sitting inside, hiding behind a large screen, waiting for her.

“Yan, I will make it brief.”

His voice was different than usual. He sounded slightly nervous. Once she had sat down, she could see his face. He was pale and small droplets of sweat were visible on his forehead.

“You are not allowed to trespass into police activity. Engaging in ongoing investigations without any clearance is illegal and comes with high penalties. You work for an important government branch, but that does not allow you to enter restricted areas. Luckily for you, this was brought straight to me. And I will let it slide this one time, but if you do it again, you will face the full consequences.”

She was strangely calm about all of this. He had confirmed her suspicions. Not only through the reason for the meeting, but by his manner and behavior. It felt like he was being held at gunpoint and not her. She noticed the camera in the back of the room. It was slightly tilted from the usual position where it would have the best angle over the room. Was somebody watching?

“I hope you understand how important it is to not interfere in any police investigation. Your job is everything you have, so don’t put it on the line.”

That sounded like a threat. But getting someone else qualified and trained for this job took way too much effort, which the government was unwilling to pay. Her boss seemed like he was about to finish his short lecture on obedience and trust in the government when something poked under the table against her knee. She did not react in any way and just looked her boss in the eyes. His eyes slowly pointed below the table while he continued to talk. She slowly reached out her left arm and found his. He put a small disk drive into her hand. What the hell was going on?

She kept the drive in her hand till she had to pass the security gate. She shoved the small drive behind her teeth and kept it there till she left the elevator. She got out her smartphone and inserted it. It felt like a spy movie she used to watch as a kid.

The drive had several folders that she quickly browsed through: Logs of her PC history, her multitool data, pictures of CCTV cameras that showed her entering the restricted apartment, pictures from inside her apartment, pictures of the drug trips she had with her friends. Someone had done their homework, but it all made her more curious. She had not been fired and was not in prison, but now she knew that she was being watched. The situation had only changed to her advantage.

She looked through the multitool data again and found it: the result of the test. She could reverse search the government database to find similar results, but she had to do it from somewhere else than her PC. Maybe during a routine check in a lab.

In the elevator, she received a message. She had been suspended from work for the rest of the day. One day less pay. They had to punish her in some way. A notification popped up on the way home. The new year celebration was in one week—the perfect opportunity for everyone to get sick. Large gatherings legally required everyone to wear facemasks, but there were too few masks produced, and less could afford them, if they would care enough to buy them in the first place. Everyone in her department would work double and triple shifts. She did not look forward to it.

 

5

It was the same lab she had been to last time. The young man was lying on the couch again, sleeping. She uploaded her data, then used another PC to search for the test result that should not exist. There was no entry in the database for it. She logged in with an old admin account that had full clearance, a gift from her dad. There was only one result. It was the test she had done, but most information was censored. It was only the date that assured her that it was her test. She opened a text editor and quickly wrote a script for the server. It would notify her about new test results and send the encrypted data to her phone. She even made sure that documents that would reference the case files or results would get sent.

What she did was 100% illegal, but if they wanted her locked up or silenced, they would have already done it. And it was not the first time that she was doing this. It was the only thing the people who were watching her had not found out. They probably did not expect her to code, nor that her scripts and logs would be on the central server, secured behind the highest security clearance. She left the lab, and again, the young man had not noticed anything.

The week till the new year celebration passed without any notification. Maybe all that she had experienced was just a regular procedure she had no authorization to know about. Work went as usual, but she managed to locate the small camera in her apartment. It was built into the ceiling above the door and was barely visible. She moved some furniture in her room to partially obstruct the view of the camera.

The days up to the celebration tensed everyone up. She did what she had done every year; stock up on food, drinks, and medication. During the week, she had no time to get any of it. Her colleagues did the same.

The procedure during the new year celebrations was different than the rest of the year. A small team was observing CCTV cameras with the help of AI programs. If the program saw something resembling a sneeze, cough, or high body temperature, it would notify them, and the people would get marked for observation. If the person continued to show the symptoms, Yan or one of her colleagues would investigate. They would test the person and, if positive, give out masks, if they had any, and send them home. If they did not go home independently or in a specified amount of time, the police would get notified.

In between these high-priority calls, she still had to do her usual job. The children were free to walk around during the new year, which meant that the infection rate was considerably higher—at least three to four times the average, which meant three to four times the work. During the week, several of her colleagues would have burnout or end up in the hospital themselves. But the celebration was one of the only things left that cheered up the people. Made them forget that they once lived outside these grey walls.

She passed a large painting on the way to her first shift. It stretched many meters over the entire wall. Grasslands and forests, animals roaming free, small buildings on the horizon. It made her remember the videos she had watched as a child. Some of them should still be stored in one of the locked containers under her bed. She made a note to watch them again after the celebration was over.

The new year celebration turned the grey, cold, and symmetrical architecture into a colorful festival. The parks, markets, and open spaces were packed with people. They drank, sang, and watched old movies together. Large families would meet up and have a feast in the markets, often accompanied by friends and neighbors. Graffiti would appear out of nowhere and color the walls with flowers in all colors, shapes, and sizes. The people were happy until they saw Yan with her uniform and mask. Her work was made a lot harder by all the people being on the move. Getting from apartment to apartment now took longer and had its challenges. Broken or packed elevators, vacant apartments, or people not cooperating with her. After getting a grandpa picked up by police because his family ignored her orders, she called it a day. She had seven hours of sleep before her next shift would start. When she got in bed, she immediately fell asleep.

The days went by, with her getting more and more exhausted. Two years ago, she had to get into the hospital herself: breathe oxygen, and sleep for several hours until she could continue to work. She was not as exhausted this time but started to fall asleep in the elevators. With people standing around her, she could not fall over. She napped for a few minutes until she would get out. Several times she missed her floor and had to reroute.

As a child, she had loved the celebration. Friendly people, food, and everything blooming in colors. Her dad was mostly working, but neighbors or relatives took her out, and she explored the recolored world. Only after she got to know the intense problems of the yearly gatherings, her perspective shifted. She could still enjoy them, but the issues got more prominent in her head especially since she started working in the health department.

The last day of the week started and ended with her taking three times the dose of pills she usually took when burned and stressed out. In the morning to stay up for the long shift and mobilize the last bit of energy she had, and in the evening to increase body recovery and decrease clotting factors. Her boss had implemented the pills several years ago when they had tested his division after the new year madness. All of them had inflammation and blood abnormalities. They received pills for several weeks to counter the inflammation and reduce the chance of getting a heart attack or stroke.

In the last elevator to her apartment, she looked at the weekly statistics. She had conducted 214 tests; the average of her division was 168, the average during a typical week was 78. At least they would not fire her because of her performance. She did her last self-check before entering her apartment. She was clean, but her body was showing symptoms of extreme stress. The device recommended to slow down, take a break, and visit a doctor. She grinned. That’s what it had told her the entire week now. She took a quick shower and fell into a deep slumber. She did not notice the messages she received only a few minutes after she had gone to bed.

 

6

She slept for 18 hours, then made herself a large bowl of noodles, and slept another six. When she got up the second time, she looked at herself in the mirror. Her short black hair was all over the place, and her eyes half-open, with deep blue rings below them. Her posture was terrible, and she did some stretching. It hurt. She was not skinny, but the bones of her ribcage were visible through her skin. She had gotten a small belly over the past years. Nobody cared, but she did. Unregular and declining exercise, mixed with too many pre-made meals, showed their long-term effects on her.

She brushed her teeth, took a shower, and shaved her body. She was getting uncomfortable with how long her hair had become. She grabbed herself the last clean shirt and underwear, then walked down the hall with the dirty laundry. The old apartments the government provided did not have a pickup service for laundry. She stuffed her clothes in the washing machine and started it. For six minutes, she sat on one of the chairs in the room. Alone and without her phone. She decided that it was not worth walking back just to get it, so she meditated to the humming of the washing machine. The beeping of the finished laundry woke her up. It was clean and dry; she would only need to fold it.

She let herself fall on her bed. Just doing the laundry had already exhausted her, but she had to stay up for a while, else her sleep rhythm would end up way worse than it already was. She looked at her phone. The group chat of her friends was jokingly asking if she had survived the last week. Her department had gotten the same copy and paste email congratulating them for their service. She had received the usual bonus payout, and the work schedule for this week was online. She had another day off until the annual post-new-year department meeting. The day after, she had to get back to work. She moaned. Just the idea of already getting back to work was exhausting.

She continued to clean her inbox and almost deleted the email without any subject. It was coming from a server on the network she was connected with. It took her a moment to understand that it was her script that had sent her an email. It also made her remember that she had not tested the script when she was setting it up.

The email was a detailed report as she saw them every day, except that it was the same abnormality that she had scanned. Somebody had been in the system to change the default response to “clean” instead of giving it an error as she had gotten it. The scan was conducted 26 hours ago by a young colleague of hers. She looked up the work schedule and found her name. She was assigned to the last shift, and the check of the day was a young girl. The scan location was one of the large plazas where hundreds of people had met to eat and celebrate. She rechecked the work schedule. For the last 20 hours, nobody had conducted a scan.

Every year, a lucky handful were selected to start their work several days delayed than everyone else. They would work for only the second half of the week and resumed one day earlier than everyone else. They were the backup team to lighten the workload during the last days, and it mostly worked. They would start new scans in a few hours from now.

She checked the floor and corridor where the young girl lived. It was on the route from her apartment to headquarters. She could check out the girl’s apartment on the way. Yan whipped around in her small kitchen chair and was strangely excited to go to work tomorrow.

 

7

She got up earlier than she planned. Not because she could not wait to go to work, but because her phone pinged. Another positive scan. Another girl. She felt fine and had no symptoms, but that did not mean that it would last. She checked the total scans of the day. 48 scans. All children. She had to find a way to talk to her boss.

She left her apartment early and slowly made her way to the apartment the girl was living at. She passed the empty corridors, and only very few people were walking around this early. At the end of the corridor, she saw the apartment. It looked fine: no red tape, no broken door. She was relieved. But then she saw it while slowly walking past the door. She did not turn her head, as CCTV cameras were recording her, but a cold shiver moved down her spine.

The small stains around the lock did not fit its size. The lock had just been replaced. There were small stains on the door, only visible when the corridor’s light was directly shining on it, and the smell of disinfectant was everywhere. The floor directly below the door had small bumps and scratches in it. As if the furniture of the apartment had been pulled over it without care and in a hurry. It was just like the taped-off apartment, except it was made in secrecy, which was way more concerning.

She did not pass anyone on the way to headquarters. She was pale, and her mind was racing, creating all possible scenarios for horrible events that could occur. It was not healthy, and she noticed. In the last elevator, she took a few deep breaths. This did not have to be the start of a pandemic. She did not know what the virus did, and neither did anyone else. She had to stay calm and keep her mind sharp. Fear and panic would only make the situation worse. She had to find a way to talk to her boss without getting recorded and without being overly pushy. He must have gotten some pressure from up the chain the last time, but he was not the type of guy that would instantly fire or arrest her. The data chip was a warning, and it was made very indirect, meaning that he was not involved in it and that he was only trying to warn her. She could not be sure, but she had to talk to him.

The HQ was filled with zombies. The smell of coffee was penetrating the room, and boxes of food and sweets were stacked up on the desks. Nobody had cleaned the mess from the last week, so it looked like a battlefield, just like every year. Yan always was amused when she saw new colleagues experience the view for the first time.

Yan could not find him. He was not in his office, nor was he around the coffee slurping zombies. She had to wait.

It took a while till the chief officer started her talk. She had short blonde hair and was in her late 40s. She was looking exactly like she did last week, as if none of this had taken any toll on her. Yan had never seen her look any different during the time she had worked here. Even on the picture of the chief’s wedding on her desk, she did not look different; and that was 15 years ago.

Slides were flickering on all the screens in the room. The bright light hurt everyone’s eyes. It was the same copy and paste presentation that the chief was doing every year. How many hours worked, how many scans, how many sick, how efficient the systems had become. The zombies pretended to listen till the chief ended her talk. A few clapped. Most just kept staring at her, motionless.

Yan’s boss entered the room. He looked confident until their eyes met. Her penetrating gaze instantly signaled him that something was awry. It seemed like he understood. He walked around the room and talked to a few people. She was leaning against a desk and was slurping lukewarm coffee, following him with her eyes through the room. He slowly made his way through the room towards her.

“I don’t know what you are digging yourself into, but I’d advise you to stop it. You’re only still working here because I persuaded them to let you stay. Don’t drag me with you into this nonsense.”

“Do you even know what all this is about?” she asked calmly.

“I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. If heads of security and government officials start to question me, I know that it is better to stop asking any questions.”

“Then let me ask you this…” she leaned towards him and lowered her voice. “When the government finds a new virus, they do not brush it off, hide it and erase all evidence, do they?”

“I told you not to get me into this.” His voice got slightly angry.

“Then let me just ask you for advice. What would you do if you find out about a virus everyone is trying to hide? Would you try to find out what is going on so there won’t be a pandemic next week, or would you just sit still and trust the all mighty government?”

“Do you want me to arrest you for your own good?”

“I’m already in HQ. Arrest me now if you have to.” She was testing him for his loyalty. He had been a good friend of her father, but how far would he go for that friendship? He stayed silent for a moment. He was thinking. Then his posture and face relaxed, and he continued.

“All I know is that it is official government business. We are not authorized to anything going on within the B3 sub-division. If you dig any further, you are on your own.”

He looked into her eyes for a moment, then nodded confidently and moved on through the room. He had thrown her a bone, and she had caught it: the B3 sub-division. She knew that B3 was responsible for laboratory testing, but the projects they were working on were undisclosed to anyone.

Her phone pinged. Another positive scan. Another young boy.

 

8

The next day she received another four messages; four more children. None had any symptoms or seemed sick. Maybe they were just ideal carriers for the virus? She managed to check the database on her way home; All the new cases had disappeared, but they had resurfaced elsewhere; on the B3 division servers. They were not on the main servers or in the database. They had to be stored on a local server.

When she was back home, she started brainstorming. One of her friends was regularly scheduled for a cleaning job in B3. But she could not tell her anything about what was going on. How could she access the servers without actually being there? She could write a program, put in on a stick, and remote control the PC from her phone.

She started coding and messaged her friend. She was straightforward.

“Can you take my USB stick with you into B3 and hook it up to a PC without anyone noticing?”

“Only a USB stick? Sure thing. But that will cost ya. I’m not doing these things for free.”

She had just learned something new about her friend. Apparently, smuggling was one of her side incomes. Yan was confused, but not really. More surprised than anything else. This was definitely easier than she had thought.

Another three pings came in while she was coding the program.

She dropped off the USB stick at her friend’s apartment. After she ringed, the door opened slightly, and a hand took her stick and money. The dimly lit face standing in the doorway smiled.

“Happy doing business with you. You know my schedule.”

When the door closed, she received another ping. It was no case this time, but information from the health department. It was an internal message that would be made public tomorrow. Her eyes widened as she read through the two paragraphs. From tomorrow onwards, every child under the age of 14 has to be self-quarantined. Parents and people who had close contact with a child have to create lists of who they have been in contact with since and upload them to a government website.

Another ping. This time it was another email about the cases, but her email program had stacked the mails. This time it was not one, but 24. She checked the automated spreadsheet on her server that was compiling the data from the cases. Twenty-two of the new ones were children, but two were adults. Both adults were sick and had been transported to the hospital. One had died in the hospital a few hours ago from an autoimmune issue.

She shivered. Things were moving way faster than expected. If the virus had a long incubation time in the children and only now started to show in adults, thousands could already be infected. She ordered another batch of face masks and gloves to her apartment. This was only just beginning; it could still be stopped. The department was already taking first measures by quarantining children, but it was probably way too late. Somebody, somewhere high up in the government had fucked up big time, while still trying to keep it under the radar. But if the virus was the cause of this first death, many more would pile up.

She was nervous throughout the day about getting a positive scan from the children and checked her mails after every scan. She got lucky. None of the ones she scanned were positive. When she got home, she loaded up the spreadsheet and started to collect the information she had. There had been another 16 positive scans since.

Children were carriers, while they themselves did not seem to have any health issues. If they started to develop any, it would turn into a nightmare. The only hope for humanity would get decimated by an unknown virus. But if the children were just carriers and the virus was harmful to adults, it would be just as terrible. She did not want to imagine possible death numbers. She went to bed early. Hopefully, the B3 files would shed light on what was going on.

 

9

A video on social media had spread like wildfire. A family was violently taken away from their apartment by a group of people in hazmat suits. She checked the apartment number on her spreadsheet. Both children living there were infected. A few seconds after she had downloaded the video, it had been deleted, and the uploader account banned. She noticed the video being reposted on social media a few times before it was part of the censorship filter and could not be reuploaded.

There were 20 new infections today, but no adults among them, which also meant no deaths. She did not know how she should react if she would have her first positive. What should she do? She did not even know if and how the virus would spread. If she warned them, it would be reported to HQ, and people would break down her door. If she did nothing, the virus would spread further.

When she got home, she made sure the camera above the door could not see what was on her screen. She had slowly changed her habits, so the camera could pick up less of what she was doing. But she made sure not to become too aware of its presence. Else the people sitting behind the camera would get suspicious and might plant another one.

She had tea and some cookies while waiting for a new device to connect to her network. A few minutes had passed since the beginning of her friend’s shift. It pinged. She got access. Another ping. A picture from her friend. The USB stick was plugged into the back of an older PC that was standing below a desk. It was perfect. Nobody could see it from above or even notice unless they got below the desk and checked the cables—another message.

“This good?”

“Looks good. Give me a minute.”

“Don’t take too long. I’m fast at cleaning. Swish Swish. 😉

She connected to the PC and had full access. The PC was only connected to the local network, but her stick could access the internet. It had already created a full access admin account and deleted all the logs. Perfect. The remote-control program was installing itself while the stick uploaded folders. She took over. It seemed to be one of these old backup PCs where everything is stored on. She found the folder that was collecting the new cases, but it was empty. She looked into the projects folder and found more than she was looking for. Over the past decade, they had experimented with ways to boost the immune system of children. Many details were redacted, but none of the projects moved to a trial stage.

“Moving on now. Any last wishes?”

“No. Thank you. You nailed it.”

“Just don’t tell me anything about the stuff you are looking at. Ok?”

“Ok.”

The folders were all uploaded. Nothing particular caught her eye. She decided to copy the entire hard-drive anyway. It would only take a few minutes. She would not need to worry about the stick anymore and could turn it into sleep mode. As long as she would not activate it again, it would look like a broken USB stick.

She spent the rest of the evening reading through the project documents of the past years. They were either focused on making people fertile again or improving the immune system of children. She started to get sleepy, but she still had a bunch of projects to read through. She decided to read the rest tomorrow.

Yan woke up from a call. She was still groggy and tired and did not manage to pick up in time. Her phone pinged immediately after. One of her friends had sent her dozens of messages. She had sent her photos and videos of her neighbors. The grandma next door was crying and screaming while six people in hazmat suits fixated her onto a stretcher and covered her with a large plastic bag. Then they loaded her into a small cart and drove her away. Shortly after, they came back for her husband. He was lying motionless on the stretcher. There were at least two of them spraying disinfectant onto the corridor and in the apartment.

Yan checked her mail. 63 new cases. 23 of them adults. Half of them over 60 years old. She did go through her other emails. No information about a virus or outbreak. She checked the official websites, then the internal government sites: nothing. And the cases were still getting deleted. But five new deaths attributed to autoimmune issues.

Her friend was in panic and hoped Yan would know what was going on. She had lunch with them yesterday, and they looked completely healthy. Were her neighbors sick? Was she sick?

Yan felt uncomfortable. A part of her knew that her friend was already infected, but the only way she could help her would result in the white people showing up. They would take her away, just like her neighbors. She wanted to tell her the truth, but did not want her to panic even more.

“It looks bad for your neighbors, but that does not mean you are sick. Stay home today, and don’t get close to anyone. I’ll come by soon and do a check-up. Try to calm down and relax. Being in stress and panic will only make it worse. Distract yourself with some cat videos till I’m there.”

Yan found her folder of cute cat videos and send it to her. She never thought keeping them on her phone would turn out useful someday.

Her friends’ video circulated on social media for a few hours until it got shut down alongside the accounts it was uploaded from. It had reached millions of views among the original and the dozen reposts. Yan’s day had just gotten a lot more complicated.

She did not manage to meet her friend until the late afternoon. During the day, she contacted her boss and tried to explain the situation. He did not want to understand. If there is officially no new virus, then there is no virus. He would not risk his job or confront the government over her redacted documents. She was on her own.

She was wearing gloves and face mask when she knocked on her friend’s door. Nobody opened. Her phone pinged.

“Is it you?”

“Yes.”

Her friend slowly opened the door. Her shoulder-length black hair was messy, and she looked like she had just fallen out of bed. There were small rings under her eyes, and all emotions were absent from her face. She looked exhausted.

“How are you holding up?”

She only made a grunting noise. Yan followed her to the couch, and they both sat down. They knew the procedure.

“Listen. Even if you are sick does not mean that you will feel sick or have any problems. Many things can be a-symptomatic, and you only have to keep distance to others.”

Her friend had heard but did not react. She observed Yan’s multitool, which she had just jammed, so none of the data would get transmitted to the government servers. The test was negative. She connected the device to her phone and extracted the raw data.

“Is it broken, or what are you doing?”

Yan did not respond till she had the results. Her friend was infected. She was only 29, but it did not mean that she could not develop serious issues. She was an adult after all.

“I’m giving you a choice. You have no symptoms, which is good, but you are sick. Either you stay at home and have contact with no one for the next few days and let your body work it out or report it to the government. But then there is a high chance that the people in white suits will show up again.”

She contemplated for a little bit, then answered.

“I will stay home for now. Thank you.”

She was about to hug her but then remembered that close contact is not optimal when having an infectious disease.

“I will check back on you when I can. Let me know if you need anything.”

Yan left the apartment. The atmosphere had changed into something quiet and peaceful. Outside she quickly disinfected herself and did a self-check.

 

10

“Read folder T-28-FY, then get back to me. Time is working against us.”

“I read it. Who are you? What does it have to do with what is going on?”

“The tests worked. We managed to make the kids more resistant, and a large portion of them regained their fertility, but we noticed the side effects too late. It spread to adults that were in close contact. We tried to contain it, but it mutated and got airborne. Everyone got infected. They shut down the project and isolated everyone involved. Kids, parents, researchers. The adults had no symptoms, then died one after another within days. The kids were ok but still contagious.

Officially the project was dead, but the government kept going. As the last survivor of the project, they made me the head of the operation. We continued research for several months, then tested again. It would still spread to adults, but they were fine and had no side effects for weeks. They pushed us to distribute and use it without further testing. I delayed it by several months until they removed me from the project.

That was two months ago. Then I saw your scripts sniffing in my old computer. I can’t get into the lab anymore, so I am doing the same. You are from Health, so I assume it is spreading right now. Tell me what you know.”

“I scanned an unknown disease. After checking up on it, it got deleted on purpose. I dug a bit deeper till I got into your PC. There are hundreds of cases right now. Most of them children, but it is starting to spread to adults. Some died, but too little to know for sure that it was the virus. They list the deaths under autoimmune issues.”

“It makes the children more resistant, but the adults degrade. Just as with the first project, it only seems to be delayed longer.”

2465357_17.mp4

“Watch it. Both were infected and the man died. The government is silent, I am being tracked, and my boss got pressured to make me stop investigating.”

“Transfer of Citizens between Complexes prohibited until further notice.

This got posted a minute ago. They are making moves. Send me all the data you have. I need to contact some people. I’ll get back to you ASAP.”

“I stocked up on essentials. Five more people have died. My shift starts soon. Any updates?”

“The alerts keep coming in. 10% of today’s scans were positive. This is growing exponentially.”

“Where are you?”

“Research Department is still trying to downplay the whole situation. Only some know what’s going on. The head of the project died this afternoon. I am compiling all the data you’ve sent. I’ll send it to a few important people that have the power to do something. If you don’t hear from me in the next 24 hours, I’m either in prison or dead. If that is the case, all the data will get released over official channels, and you will get the highest authorization I can give. Don’t do anything stupid till then.”

“If the complexes are lost, head for the outer layer and make them isolate. They will survive.”

“The outer layer? I thought they had been abandoned?”

“Abandoned by our government. All communication had been shut off, but they still deliver products. With my authorization, you will be able to take a car from hangar 21-A. Head west for about 150 kilometers. Their complexes are as big as ours, so you can’t miss them.

Good Luck.

Jason”

 

11

Children had turned into virus bombs, and adults were losing their immune system. It had always been that way, but never to such magnitude. Yan had deactivated the notifications. The number just kept growing on her inbox and made her more nervous. Twelve hours had passed since Jason had messaged her. Transportation between complexes had completely shut down, and lockdowns were authorized. Public places and restaurants were closed, but the government still had not made any public statements. Things were moving way too fast, and people started to panic.

She had to change her clothes. People would flock to her when they noticed the sign of the health department. Many were confused, many more angry. She could give answers to none of them.

She saw more and more people in hazmat suits throughout the day. They were carrying body bags or escorting people through the complex. It was a bad sign. They appeared on social media, and although the government censored and removed the posts, there were too many not to notice. The place she had bought supplies from yesterday was now crowded with people. Long lines were forming in front of the shops. She was surprised that some people actually wore facemasks. It had been a long time since she had seen anyone outside of the department use them.

Sixteen hours had passed. She could not sleep. She had visited her friend to check and bring her supplies, but she was gone. The door broken, and the apartment smelling of disinfectant. Her friend was not listed on the reports. She might still be alive.

24 hours. All scans in the past 6 hours were positive. The first bodies were lying in the streets. A government announcement appeared on all channels: an unknown disease had been identified, and everyone was forced to stay at home. But only few people cared at this point. The reaction came way too late. The shop that was packed yesterday had been broken and emptied overnight. Small pieces of glass were all over the floor and drops of dried blood in between.

Jason’s report was online. She had no idea how he had managed it, but it was on every news site on the internet. He even overwrote the official government website. It took them not long to take it down, but now the information was out. The first paragraph of the report summarized what the virus was and what to do, which was sadly very simple. Stay inside, avoid contact with anyone, filter your air, clean yourself, and your apartment. Then a detailed report of the events and the project followed. He even made a short paragraph about his involvement and noted that he would already be dead by the time the information would be online. He apologized for his lack of stopping the disease and hoped for the best. There was a small picture of Jason attached in the last paragraph. He had curly, unwashed black hair and white glasses that were sitting slightly tilted on his nose. He was pale, but his eyes were bright green and full of energy. The report was critical, but it had not changed the situation. It was already way too late.

Yan’s boss had not answered her calls nor her messages for the past day. All the messages now came directly from the head of the department. At first, she and her colleagues were ordered to scan and quarantine the children in the complexes. Then they had to help out move the bodies that kept piling up. The bodies were mostly lying in front of the apartments, moved there by the family or relatives. They were so scared to get infected; they instead moved the bodies outside than stayed with them. But by that point, they were already infected.

Somebody had spread the idea that the government unleashed the virus on purpose to decimate the population. Many had picked up on it. Even with just the mask on, it was getting dangerous for Yan outside. She had to run away from angry mobs several times. Anyone with a face mask was almost instantly associated with the health department. Some of her colleagues were found beaten up in the complex.

She just got back into her apartment when she heard the first gunshots. She remembered the sound and the delay between the shots from her training. How could this situation turn so dire so quickly?

She cleaned her equipment and clothes, took a shower, and started to pack. She did not have much time. Maybe the hangars were already closed. The reports from other complexes seemed to mirror what was going on inside hers. She had to leave. Abandon ship. It was already underwater, and the crew and passengers were already drowning on the lower floors.

She stopped for a moment and looked at her multitool. She had not done a self-check for the past hours. She paused her packing for a moment. Would it change anything? She took a few deep breaths. Her result was positive.

She closed the door of her apartment. The halls were silent. Nobody was around. She looked through the windows into the park below. A few robots were stacking bodies in the park, but else, silence. Then a few gunshots. She started to move. She had her equipment, drugs, water, food, and batteries in her backpack. It was her emergency bag that had been ready since she had started her first day at her job.

She stopped at every corner and made sure nobody was around. She was wearing a protective suit with the sign of the health department on it. That would at least give her some time before she would get shot.

She reached the elevators. They were all deactivated. She was about to head for the stairs until she remembered Jason’s authorization. Was she able to turn them back on? It took a few seconds; then the elevator moved to her floor. She had to switch elevators three times to reach the hangar level. It was underground and usually guarded, but there was nobody around. She opened the sealed doors from her phone and walked through the decontamination chamber. She felt like a god—a god with a magic phone.

She reached the hangar. There were garages with quads, small SUVs, and big trucks. She did not need any of them. As she passed them, she could see a thick layer of dust that had settled on all of them. Only the large trucks seemed to be used regularly. After the fifth row of trucks, she found was she was looking for: a medium-sized dune buggy. It had thick wheels and long shock absorbers. The cabin was fully sealed with thick glass and looked stunning. She got in, and the electric motor purred as she hit the gas. She did a swipe with her finger, and the large hangar door started to open. She drove up the small incline to the second hangar door that lead to the outside world. The buggy was fully sealed from radioactivity, and the hangar doors behind her had already closed. As the second doors opened, the bright yellow sky was greeting her.

12

The thick layer of dust in the atmosphere lit the whole sky up in a slight yellow-brownish color. The buggy automatically adjusted the glass’s brightness, and she started to drive over the dusty highway. Left and right was pure desert, and only the pyramid-shaped complexes told her that it once was otherwise. She adjusted the navigator of the buggy and changed onto the highway to the west.

The autopilot took over, and she looked through the media feed on the buggy’s glass screen. Many websites were shut down or had the official government information displayed. Other sites were overwhelmed with posts. Videos of bodies and shootings were covering the website. A kid getting shot in the head. She turned off the screen for a moment. She felt like she had to throw up, but she only coughed a few times.

The messages from her friends were just as dire as the news. She had messaged them beforehand and warned them to stock up and stay inside, but only a few had taken her messages seriously. Their messages had turned from sarcasm to confusion to anger to panic, till most of them went silent. She felt disconnected from the whole situation. Everything had changed so quickly, so radically, that it did not feel real at all. It felt like she was watching a movie. And yet, that movie was just her entire reality.

She laid back in the buggy and did a self-check. Her immune system was still stable. She would make it to the outer layer. She fell asleep to the sound of the small radioactive sand grains scratching the glass of the buggy.

The buggy started to ping. The road had disappeared. She was less than 50 kilometers away, and sandhills before her brought up excitement. This was the reason she had taken the buggy. She remembered driving with her dad over the sandy dunes as a kid. A childish smile appeared on her tired face as she accelerated.

Jumping and bumping over the hills made her forget the whole situation she was escaping from. She was filled with bliss and joy. After a while, she started to see it. Small triangles at the horizon, just as the ones she was coming from, but slightly different. They were not yellow as the sand around them, but metallic black. They looked like the technology from a futuristic civilization. She did not receive any broadcasts as she got closer to them, but the ones from her complex started to fade. She prepared a last message to her friends. Either way, she did not expect to see them again.

The last images she saw online were the small parks in the complex, full of bodies. They were being burned inside the park. Hundreds. The official numbers of “autoimmune” deaths had stopped at 18320 and had not been updated for many hours. Children were also on the death list.

As she got closer to the giant complex, the shadow of it embraced her. The complex was way more massive than all the ones she knew and looked way newer. Between every few floors of metallic black, there was a floor of pure black, almost like an observation deck. As she came closer, she saw the highway appear again. Her navigation system did not pick up any roads, and the autopilot did not want to drive on this one, so she had to.

She slowed down as she got closer to the complex, till she entirely stopped. She checked her comms: no connection, no frequencies, no broadcasts. She waited. After a few minutes in the buggy, the hangar door opened. The door did not make any sound. She slowly entered the brightly lit tunnel that permanently scanned her on the way through. She reached the second door. After brief contamination of the tunnel, it opened.

The hangar looked identical to the one she was just coming from, but it had no cars inside, was clean, and had bright white walls. She parked the buggy, took her gear, and walked towards the security chambers. It felt like a constant déjà vu—a copy of her complex. Only clean, bright, and cleared of humans.

Her phone pinged—an incoming call.

“Hello, Yan. Welcome in Sector 28. You are the first visitor in a long time. Please change your clothes in the locker room. A full suit will be waiting for you inside. Your vitals show an abnormality, and we want to help you contain and recover from it.”

She walked into the lockers, took a shower, and slipped into the tight but comfy white suit. She put on the helmet that was fully transparent at the front.

“Who are you, and where am I?”

“I am Victor, the AI that is running Sector 28, alongside Sector 18 to 34. This place is an old leftover of the civilization that once existed here. They’ve split off from yours long ago.”

“Old civilization? What happened to everyone?”

As the door opened, a human-sized red robot greeted her silently. They both walked along the hallway while she was observing the grace with which the robot was walking.

“It is only me left, besides the thousands of robots I control. They make sure that this place is ready in case someone returns. The humans left decades ago. The radioactive dust makes conventional space travel impossible. Taking off at high speed destroys the ships almost instantly, but together, we managed to develop a technology for slower travel. It takes way longer to get into orbit, but the shuttle takes minimal damage.”

They entered an elevator, and while it was accelerating upwards, a large plaza with trees and lakes was stretching out into the distance before them.

“One after another, they left; Moon, Mars, Titan, and other research colonies. There are not many of them. Only a few thousand, not more. I have not received any message from them in a long time.”

They took another elevator further up. They were moving at the side of the complex, the empty desert visible through the glass.

“How did they develop all this technology without us noticing? While we were living right next to you, stuffing ourselves in a cage, waiting to die.”

“There are many reasons, but it was mostly just luck; the right scientists working on the right thing at the right time. They tried to contact you. They sent out resources and supplies, but all of them got refused or were destroyed. I have no information about why the people here split up, but it does not matter anymore.”

“Where are we going?”

“We are following the purpose I was built for. To bring you to them.”

The elevator stopped, and they walked into a large white hallway that got wider and wider. In the middle of the room was a small shuttle, enough for four people to fit into. It opened its glass front as they approached it.

“But what about my people? They are dying from a disease they created.”

“I know, and there is nothing we can do. They are dying from a disease far greater than the ones they are struggling to cure. You are sick too, but you are here now. It is my purpose to make you leave this world behind and travel to the stars. There is nothing left for you on this planet, but there are things beyond. I wish you a great journey. Only acceptance is the way forward. May you find your way.”

Almost in trance, she entered the shuttle. The red robot waved at her, and on its display, a happy smile appeared. The shuttle took off without a sound. A small tunnel above her opened, and the shuttle flew through it. She was above the complex now. She still saw the robot waving through the tunnel until it closed.

The shuttle slowly ascended further. After a few minutes, she saw her complex in the distance. The place she had lived her entire life. The place she was parting with. Her eyes got wet, and a small tear dropped on her cheek. Could she have stopped the outbreak? Maybe. Probably not. It was not in her power. It was already in motion long before she could make any moves.

She looked up into the sky, and slowly, the yellow dust got thinner and thinner, replaced by countless stars. She was going home.