A story about what happens when quarantine lasts for four years.
“Japanese Scientists Made a Breakthrough in PHLEVID-41 Vaccine Development. The vaccine would be on the market by the end of the year, sources say.”
Stark chuckled as he scrolled the newsfeed. They promised a cure every February in the past four years. Did anyone still believe it was possible?
But there are gullible people, all right. Look at this headline. “Six dead and ten infected after the homecoming party in Orange County.” Were four years not enough to learn the lesson? Stark hadn’t left his home since the quarantine started and felt perfectly healthy, not counting extra pounds.
His fingers rolled the wheel of the old-fashioned mouse. Stark skimmed the article about shopping automatization but skipped the next one, “Five Ways to Make Your AI Pet Smarter.” Lame. I can write a better one.
‘TES Online: The Long Reign’ released on March 25, 2045, got 9.8-star reviews. And he still hadn’t got the console to play it. Stark pushed the mouse away and got up to make some coffee. Dammit, no beans! Or bread. Or milk.
“Miri, order food. The usual.”
“Alright,” the silvery voice of his final project answered. “Expect your delivery within three hours.”
“What about my console?” Stark landed back on his gaming chair and launched the workspace.
“It will be shipped in two days. Don’t forget to switch me off if you’re going to revise my code.”
Stark stared at the white lines of text on the black screen. He couldn’t concentrate on her, not really. Lol, they’ll sooner develop the vaccine than deliver my console! “Nope, I’ll call Liam.”
The black IDE window collapsed, showing the yellowish face of his best friend. It was puffy and swollen, but he still looked like the successful streamer he was. He earned more money playing games than Stark got from all his freelance programming jobs. Yep, why not, Liam makes the girls piss their pants with his almond-shaped eyes and this glowing skin and this fancy mohawk of his. He wouldn’t if he had red pepper all over his face plus extra weight. Video filters couldn’t mask such things. Stark glanced at the elliptical trainer, resplendent in dust and dirty socks. Maybe later.
“Hey bro! What’s up?” Liam’s voice was hoarse.
“Hey Liam. Got the new console?”
“Yep, but I haven’t unpacked it. Been busy.”
“Nope. Chatting,” Liam smiled slyly. “Asian triplets. Kawaii!”
“Congrats.” Stark clenched the mouse.
“Again? Chill out man! No need to be jealous.”
“I’m not jealous. Online dating is not my thing.”
Liam laughed. “No such thing as offline dating now!”
“Or anything offline,” Miri said.
Stark spilled his water.
“Was that Miri?” Liam pulled away so abruptly the poster with a half-naked anime girl swung behind his back. “Don’t remember her talking before like that.”
“She didn’t.” Stark’s heart pounded. “Can’t believe it worked!”
“Been updating her? Seems a bug to me. The AI who doesn’t like anything online. Weird.”
Blood warmed Stark’s cheeks. “She behaves like the original.”
“Eh?” Liam’s eyes lost focus, he must’ve been chatting with someone else.
“Miriam,” Stark spelled, wincing. Even ten years later, this name brought pain.
“And who would that be?”
Stark’s mouth dried, his eyes searched Liam’s face for the hint of sarcasm and found nothing. “Sixth grade. She was my… well, Miriam.”
He saw her again in his mind’s eye, a skinny red-headed girl in ugly round glasses on her pretty round face. Her knees pressed into each other, Miriam strained under the oversized backpack, clutching a push-button phone in her small hands. Stark cringed at the memory. Where did her parents find such a phone in 2034, he didn’t know. Perhaps, they ought to have gone on homeschooling her. She would’ve still been alive.
“A girl?” Liam glanced at Stark.
A knot formed in Stark’s stomach. Are you serious, bro? He was raving to Liam about Miriam for a year. Stark had never shown any sympathy to her, too scared to play in the open with the main school scapegoat. He didn’t even trust a messenger with his feelings. Always mouth-to-ear, in person, secret.
Stark laughed tensely. “You need to sleep more. She was my crush, all along until she… did the thing.”
Liam’s face cleared. “Now I remember. She caused you trouble, eh? It’s bad luck to have a woman on board. Even a miniature one.”
Stark stared at his friend. A few chip crumbles were stuck to Liam’s unshaven cheeks. Seven.
“You’re kidding,” Stark mouthed. “Don’t joke like that bro.”
Stark jumped on his feet. “Bad luck? What has a quote from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ to do with Miriam? After they beat her with her phone — she jumped — dammit! We found her together!”
“Yeah. It’s bad luck… ” Liam’s grin became distorted. “Even a miniature one.” He giggled. “She caused you… Bad luck.” His facial muscles burst in a series of contractions. Liam blinked, licked his lips, and sniffed. “A woman on board… Bad, b-b-b-bad luck.”
The connection interrupted. Stark gazed at the black IDE screen for a minute, his heart beating in his throat, his hands trembling. I need fresh air. Fresh air. “Miri…” He cleared his throat. “Call Liam.”
“Hey bro, what’s up?” Liam’s stretched his lips in his signature happy-bastard smile.
“Greetings not needed, we just talked,” Stark snapped. “What ha…”
Liam’s eyebrows slid up. “No bro we haven’t. Are you alright?”
Stark clenched his fists.“Am I alright?.. What’s going on, Liam? Is it because you don’t want to talk about Miriam?”
“Who’s Miriam?” Liam’s face went blank.
“Miriam Foster! My first fucking love!”
“Ah. With brown hair and freckles? She played guitar?”
Stark sat down, hands on the desk, eyes glued to the screen. “Are you kidding, bro? Do you remember what she did to herself?” The shards of her skull in a red-greyish mess. Her carrot-colored hair mixed with rusty blood. The ugly smudge around her young body. Liam and Stark found her together and ran away and never talked about it since. No way Liam forgot something that horrific.
“She caused you trouble, huh?” His pretty face twitched. “It’s bad luck to have a woman on board. Even a miniature… B-b-bad luck.”
His features distorted; words bouncing between his gritted teeth, Liam smiled. The call got disconnected.
Stark stood up and tapped the desk. He paced around the room until Miri suggested taking a break. Then, he redialed Liam, only to hear, “I don’t feel well, bro. Call me later, okay?”
He didn’t answer the following calls.
“Okay Google, what do I do if my friend goes glitchy on FaceTime” gave zero results. The first post about the issue on Stack Overflow got Stark banned.
The food delivery came, and then the night. No answer. Not a word from Liam. Stark had tried to distract himself with his final project and had almost broken Miri. Twice.
“It’s a connection problem,” his brother Jon said between two slurps of Chinese ramen on their bi-weekly call.
“Don’t fool around, do some serious work. How’s your final project?” Mom’s temples looked greyer than the last time when he saw her. I really should call her more often.
“Okay Google, why do my FaceTime posts on StackOverFlow get banned?” returned one hundred and twenty thousand results; useful, zero.
Liam didn’t answer Stark’s calls but posted on Facebook and streamed as usual. He was decent enough to keep off testing “TES.” Stark hadn’t noticed the new console either.
“What’s going on, why aren’t you answering my calls? What the fuck?” Stark texted.
“Still not feeling well, bro, will get to you later.”
In his gaming stream, Liam was beaming with a smile.
By Friday, Stark got banned not only on AI forums but also in Facebook groups where he was naive enough to ask what was going on.
On Saturday, he found himself staring at his dusty protection suit. He bought it after his sophomore year in college. Going out still presented some interest then. Not so much now, when all restaurants, clubs, theaters, malls, museums, and basically everything else was closed. People still managed to get the virus, though, like those stupid kids in Orange County. If they decided to have fun, why ignore recommendations to wear a suit?
It felt tight in the middle. Sitting home didn’t present many opportunities for working out, though Instagram stars, of course, got their millions with “on-the-sofa” exercises. Stark zipped and winced: the slider pinched his chin. I’m not going to go out, am I? His self-driving car was up to the task, and it’s batteries were fully charged after several years of non-usage, but still…
“Miri, dial Liam.” The helmet muffled his voice.
His knees were weak and his shirt clung to his armpits under the protection suit as he descended downstairs. He held his breath before pushing the front door. Through his black visor, the sun looked grey. The wind swung bare branches of the wild plums, but no sounds could penetrate the helmet. A squirrel jumped away from his feet as Stark crossed the driveway. At the curbside, he looked around, turning his whole body from side to side. Perhaps, it was safe to take off the helmet. There was no one on the street but five squirrels scurrying around the trees. He checked the straps.
Was he really doing it? Walking around the street as though there was no pandemic? Man, the virus is so stubborn; on metal, it can survive for months! He glanced at the rows of cars along the curb. Their steel hoods glistened in the morning sun. Any of them could host a colony of microorganisms, waiting for their next victim.
He hurried to his vehicle. Once inside, he sprinkled the sanitizer all over the wheel and his hands, even though he wore gloves.
The car stopped at Liam’s apartment complex half an hour later. Stark hadn’t encountered any vehicles but self-driving trucks that delivered food and computer supplies. Everything else was digitized and uploaded long ago.
As he reached his friend’s hallway, Stark was red, wet, and hot as a fresh-boiled crayfish. Only crayfish don’t pant like that. He didn’t take his suit off nonetheless.
Stark stood on grey plates, pushing his knees with his hands, when he had a premonition. He stood up.
Stacks of unpacked boxes clattered the hallway, obscuring Liam’s door. A blue-and-black console package balanced on top of the nearest pile. Stark swallowed. Fear sucked the heat off his body; he felt frozen, frozen in space. He forced himself to move: cleaned the space, rang and knocked, knocked and rang. No response followed.
“Miri, dial Liam. Sound to the headphones.” His voice trembled.
“Hey bro, how are you doing?” Liam sounded as cheerful as ever.
Stark froze. He hadn’t expected the answer. His voice trembled. “I’m at your door! Could you fucking let me in?”
“You what? Are you nuts, Stark? C’mon, the virus is still out there. Have you read this story about kids in Orange County? You…”
“Shut up and let me in.”
“You are nuts. Anyway, I’m in the bathroom. That new Indian meal went wrong. Will you wait? Five minutes, maybe?”
In fifteen minutes, all he got was, “Sorry, I’m still here. Maybe you’d better come later?”
Stark pounded on the door. The wall shook under pressure. Liam went on murmuring about Indian street food he streamed eating. Stark stepped back and hit the door with all his weight. Boxes dropped from the piles, peppering the glossy floor. Liam didn’t stop.
“Haven’t you heard?” Stark asked, breathing heavily.
“Heard what? Really bro, you’re weird.”
“Are you here to pick up the boxes?” a croaky voice asked behind his back. Stark turned and saw a thin lady peeking through a crack in the door to her apartment. Her face behind the protection mask was wrinkled and pale.
“What? Miri, hang up.” He looked at her, eyes wide open. It’d been a while since Stark had seen a live person. Online, it was easy to forget that people could be ugly or old.
She sniffed the air. “Something is rotten. Your colleagues pick up the boxes on Wednesdays, and it’s already Saturday.”
“I’m sorry, m’ am, I don’t… What do you mean — pick up the boxes?”
The lady cast him a suspicious glance. “If you don’t pick up, what are you doing here?”
“My name is Stark. I’m here to visit my friend, Liam. Do you know him?”
She pulled away. “A young one? A blogger?”
“Streamer,” he whispered.
She didn’t seem to hear. “The virus killed him. Two… yes, two years ago. I saw them take his body.”
The lady was wrinkled. Her colorless eyes watered. She was old. Demented. She was mistaken.
“I’ve just talked to him.”
“I told you what I saw.” The lady slammed the door.
Stark slid down the wall. He sat still, his gaze skimming the boxes, until the cold penetrating his protection pants made him get up. Stark dialed Liam. He was still in the bathroom.
Stark ran up to the door and pushed it, again and again, until it creaked and he flew into the apartment, struggling to maintain his balance.
The air was stale, and clouds of dust floated in the sunbeams, but the living room looked perfectly neat — something that Liam was never able to achieve. No dirty mugs in the sink, no clothes hanging from chairs and piling on the floor.
Dust covered the computer desk, the keyboard, and the fancy headphones Liam wore for streams. The poster with a busty anime character was bleached by the sun.
It’s bright and colorful on his streams.
Stark’s lips went numb. He sauntered to the bathroom, leaving footprints in the dust. He knocked. No response. He squinted before pulling the handle.
The bathroom was empty.
“Mi… Miri. Dial Liam.”
“Meh, bro, I asked you to come later!”
“You’re still in the bathroom?”
“Where else would I be?”
“Okay. Fine. I’ll call you later.”
Stark didn’t remember how he got back to the car. He found himself staring at the steering wheel, the only thought in his head was, “I’m going crazy. I’ve just talked to my friend who died two years ago. Any tips?” He posted it on Facebook. It disappeared three seconds later.
At home, he loomed around the web trying to share his adventure elsewhere when Miri said, “Good news, Stark. Your console will arrive tomorrow.”
“Finally!” Stark felt as though someone sprayed a sanitizer on the dark mess in his mind. What, I haven’t taken off the suit yet? He undressed — cool, I can move again — and loaded himself with two burritos and a dorama episode. I won’t think about it. If I just wait and sleep on it, it’ll all get to normal again. One night, six cups of coffee, and two seasons later, Stark finally got to work on his final project. He was hunting a mistake throughout the system when a doorbell made him jump.
“Delivery!” a mechanoid voice sounded in the hallway.
Stark ran outside, dropping his slippers. There it was, his dream console, in the black box with a beautiful fantasy illustration. He squatted and stretched his arms to get it.
A sharp pain pierced his ankle. For a few minutes, he saw nothing but darkness. It faded to white, white like paper, like a browser screen, like Liam’s smile. He couldn’t recall anything white in his hallway.
Stark sat, rubbing his temples, his eyes glued to his bare toes. Where the hell are my socks? Did I lose them as well as the slippers? He looked up. His jaw dropped. He was in a hospital room, lying on a bed and — dammit, no protection suit! No mask, nothing! He pulled a navy blanket up to his chin and threw it in disgust. Where is my sanitizer? He checked his pockets and found none on these pants.
“Miri, where am I?”
Stilettos tapped the floor, and a husky voice said, “Please, calm down, Stark.”
He threw his head up so swiftly his neck hurt. A tall woman sat on a stool. Her pencil skirt clung to her slim hips as she crossed her legs. Her white shirt ruffling, she cupped her chin with a bare hand. Stark gasped.
She grinned. “The pandemic is long over. There’s no need to cover your skin.”
“What?…” Stark froze, swallowing the air. Thousands of thoughts scurried in his brain, causing almost physical pain. Pandemic’s over… How can’t it be over?.. Why, then?.. the sanitizer… Mom… Orange County kids… Bullshit. Who’s she, anyway? His tongue laid heavy in his mouth. He struggled to force himself into speaking. “Who are you?”
“Doctor Laila Ortega, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.”
“Are you from the police?”
Stark straightened, pushing a soft pillow to the wall. “I don’t believe you.”
“Of course.” She handed him a badge.
He wouldn’t take it from her. “Put it on the blanket.”
He picked up the ID using his sleeve for protection. The woman in the photo looked back at him seriously. He scratched the eagle on the black stamp, counted the digits of the serial number, squinted at the signature. It looked okay to him, but again, how could he tell if it was fabricated? Liam’s twitched face jumped into his mind.
Stark threw the badge on the blanket and rubbed his neck.“What does the Pentagon want from me?” Why does my voice sound so chickenshit?
She picked up the ID and looked at him with a soft smile. “I’m going crazy. I’ve just talked to my friend who died two years ago. Any tips?”
Stark gazed at her, barely blinking. Bitch. Bitch.
Dr. Ortega started pacing the room, her stilettos pattering the floor in rhyme with her words. “I’m sorry we had to delete your posts, but they could raise panic. We can’t afford it.” She stood, her back to the window, her black eyes fixed on him. “On behalf of DARPA, I bring you official apologies for the inconvenience a bug in our application caused to you. Onlife is an extremely complicated software. Hard as we work, sometimes, accidents happen.”
Accidents. She calls it an accident. Stark threw the blanket and put his bare feet down. “I’m leaving.”
He crossed the room, the floor unpleasantly cold and rough under his soles. Dr. Ortega gazed at him with a curious smile. He gripped the handle of the door.
“And you don’t want to know what happened to your friend?”
Stark turned. Her black eyes flickered.
“Go on.” He leaned to the door and pushed his hands into his pockets — dammit, no pockets! — and tucked the thumbs into the belt.
She leaned on the windowsill and tilted her head. “His physical body perished indeed, but his personality survived. Do you remember 2041?”
Stark gritted his teeth. Mom’s red eyes. A series of black dresses, he was so sick of them, but he had to wear black, too, at least, online. No job. No money. Six months on rice. “Of course I do!” The worst year in my life, not counting that one when Miriam did the thing. Although this year, this day, might top it.
She nodded. “It was a hard year for all of us. The virus mutated so quickly vaccines became useless before they finished the trials. When the death rate reached fifteen percent, it became clear we’d lost. Millions of businesses closed when everything was pushed online, but even those that survived were doomed to lose workers, clients, and money. No businesses, no taxes. No taxes, no schools, hospitals, or science.”
“Fifteen percent? C’mon, it never reached eight!”
“The death rate went up to twenty-five, Stark.”
They stared at each other. He re-played her words in his mind until their meaning struck him.
Dr. Ortega broke eye contact. “We started development before the first million mark and launched in a year. Thank God marketers had gathered all the information about your lives that we needed! Without it…”
“But you can’t! You can’t just…” He recalled Liam’s glowing face, his sly smile, his cheerful voice as he streamed his games. “You can’t make an AI behave like a living person!”
“Can’t we? Video processing algorithms have been production-ready since the early twenties. By 2025, everyone had uploaded enough personal data to create their complete profiles. Aging software was on the market long before that. As for the behavior,” she shrugged, “it has patterns. Patterns can be analyzed and reproduced. Our Onlifers post, shop, and communicate just as their original personalities would do.”
“Bullshit.” Stark hit the door with his fists. “Post, shop, maybe. But what about work? Liam, he is… was a streamer. You can’t recreate that!”
“Oh, but we can.” Dr. Ortega folded her arms on her chest. “Only a small percentage of highly-creative jobs are out of our AI’s possibilities now. Those people… well, we pretend they lost their jobs and live on subsidies now. The only exception were doctors. We can neither automate their labor nor substitute them with machines. This is the reason you’re in a hospital now. They are the most secure places in the country.”
“Bullshit,” he repeated. “Your application sucks. Liam went all glitchy when I mentioned…” No. She’s right. It’s not a lie. Cold crept up his spine.“When I mentioned Miriam. We… I… We had never talked about Miriam online. And she wasn’t even on Facebook. Shit!”
“Exactly. You’ve never discussed this girl online, and your emotional reaction was so bizarre Liam couldn’t detect a correct pattern. You accidentally found a critical error in our app. This is why I’m about to offer you a job.”
“Yes, and a good one for an undergraduate like yourself. We can’t let you get away now, you see. If people know the truth, they’ll start panicking all over again, and panic is what almost killed us when the pandemic started.”
“Yes. I remember.” His heart jumped in his throat. Panic killed his Dad, even though it took the form of a heart attack.
“So, you’ll stay here, in this building.” Dr. Ortega drew a circle in the air. “Your life will be the same. Better, actually: even junior testers in DARPA are well-paid, and you’ll get all the fancy gadgets, consoles, and software updates. And more…”
Dr. Ortega crossed the room and stood in front of him. She was neither old nor ugly, even though wrinkles streaked along her forehead, and dark spots spoiled her brown skin, and her eyelashes stretched shorter than those of any online girl.
“We could help you recreate Miri.”
He stared at her, his jaw slowly sliding down.
She nodded. “Yes. She’ll be like Liam. A living young woman, your age now. You might touch her. Make love, even. This is still in development, but with your help…”
His heart pounded. “No.”
“In a few years, you’ll forget she… did the thing.”
He turned to the window. Jalousie obscured the view completely. “What are my other options? Are you going to… kill me?”
“No.” Dr. Ortega stepped back.“You’re not the only one to find our project. At first, it was rather raw, so we were discovered constantly. Some of these people work here now. Others chose what they call freedom.”
“And what is that?”
“One of our benefactors donated an island. There is a village there, nothing special, but fully habitable. About three hundred of your predecessors live there. We visit them once a month, perform maintenance and deliver medications, but most of the time, they are self-sustained. Naturally, they have no internet. You could join them, but really, Stark, with your talent, that would be a loss.”
Talent. Miri, living and smiling with the smile he remembered, dimples on her cheeks and a gap between her front teeth. He’d never liked that gap. There wouldn’t be a gap in his version.
What am I thinking? It was a lie, everything was a lie. Miriam was dead. Liam, too. Maybe, everyone else he knew. The island was the right choice, with a real life, natural, like in survival games. That would be truth.
What will I tell Mom?
She’d be glad to know I got a job… If she is not… No, he couldn’t think about that, not seriously. His Mom was real, of course she was…
“M’am… Doctor…” Stark muttered. “My brother and Mom. Are they… alive?”
Doctor Ortega shrugged. “What difference does it make?”
Stark froze; the answer trembled on the tip of his tongue. He swallowed. She was right. It made no difference: he hadn’t noticed Liam had changed until the Miri talk and wouldn’t notice if anything happened to his other peers. What would he do on an island, anyway? Without the Internet, he’d lose everything he had: his work, doramas, video games, and his connections, some of which, perhaps, were real.