Neon lights burn through the broken blinds, flashing onto your sleeping eyelids. They flutter open slowly, you struggle to make sense of the darkness.
Where am I?
A hard mattress, not your own, and an unfamiliar room comes into view. Your hands automatically search for your phone and you sit up uneasily when you find it.
1 text message.
Bring the suitcase. 1:00am. Central Station Clock.
You jerk as it all comes back to you. A glance at your phone tells you that its 23:00. August 09, 3033.
Scrambling off the bed, you hurry to put your shoes on. Outside on the street, catcalls and drunken shouting serve as a reminder of where you are, they urge you on. You grab the key card and sprint through the door. Downstairs, the sleazy receptionist handles your checkout.
“I left an item in the vault,” you say meaningfully.
She nods wordlessly, gesturing for you to follow her. The facade of the old- fashioned motel is broken as soon as you step into the “back room” – it’s a cold cavern expanding far and high. Dimly-lit, there’s a buzz from the many, many screens sprawled over the walls, surrounding the room from floor to ceiling.
An out-of-date mini hovercar lingers near the entrance. The receptionist taps in a code and the machine strains to life. You step on and look down at the selection screen, typing in a password. The hovercar jerks into motion and moves forward, pauses after a metre and rises up vertically, stopping in front of the vault you selected.
Welcome, the screen echoes loudly.
A quick face scan sends lasers across your features, and the vault pops open. You reach in and pull out the most important thing in this world: a metal suitcase. Its cold as your fingers grab it hurriedly. The vault shuts with a vacuum seal and the hovercar hums again. It drops down fast, then speeds backwards retracing its motion. The emotionless receptionist gestures for you to get off and shuts down the car.
As you step back out into the motel, the old world comes into view again. You hurry out the door and into the uncertain night. Its wet and cold outside from the rain, you pull your coat around you, buttoning it up with one hand, walking quickly, breathing fast.
The suitcase feels like one of the many flashing signs above you: a warning, an invitation, a glaring signal that you’re carrying something important. Best to move fast, you think.
You pause at the corner of the street to glance at your wristwatch, 23:30. You look around the seedy red-light district and grimace. You remember that you chose to travel this way, walking in the dirty streets like a citizen of the past, muddling through the forgotten alleyways of an era decimated by disease. You exhale as your fingers tighten their grip around the cool metal handle.
Suitcase in hand, you head to the station.
I never thought I’d have to come back here, you muse. It was now the underbelly of the new world. High above, over the half-demolished buildings from a bygone century, the hover-highway glimmers with passing hovercars. You remember reaching up with your dirty fingers as a child, hoping to touch one of those machines, dreaming of ascending into the heights of the tall, thousand-story skyscrapers.
You click your tongue impatiently at the memory, hop over the potholes and cross the street – into a busy bazaar.
I hope I remember the way, you pray silently.
It’s a shortcut from your old school days, a path you knew would keep you safe from cops, thieves, shopkeepers you pilfered from. During the day this market buzzed with people, children and animals. Loud exclamations, shouts and brays in all languages.
At night however, the same market catered to a different crowd: a motley assortment of restless bodies, looking for sedatives, hallucinogens, pleasure and pain. It was the perfect camouflage for discretion – no one present here tonight wanted to be seen or heard. You quicken your pace as you near the square, clasping your coat around you, hoping to hide your gender, the revelation of which would be more dangerous than your identity – or the contents of the suitcase for that matter.
As you cross the square you notice some men emerge from the shadows to your right. Ahead of you, a hooded figure walks slowly, shadowed in the smoke of a thousand drugs – sending chills through you. You stop walking, paralysed from knowledge and fear. Goosebumps form all over, your heart pounds to alert your body of danger. You glance to the right and see that the two men have split up, they’re now on either side of you.
The hooded figure hovers closer, taking it’s time, looking like a ghost in the middle of this haunted market of horrors.
Your heart is hammering against your ribs, but your body won’t kickstart. You can feel the trio closing in on you. You struggle to remember what the bazaar looks like – it had been so long since you were here.
You turn and take off, not looking back but knowing that your pursuers will be inches from you. You take a right and a left, stumbling over a group playing a game of dice. The men curse you loudly, giving away your position. As you look back, you see the two men hurtling toward you at unnatural speed.
You increase your movement, pumping your legs more and gripping the suitcase tighter than ever. A fork in the path up ahead, with the statue of Aphrodite jolts your memory, and you fly towards the narrower of the two alleyways. An assortment of people in various states of undress are milling about in the darkness, whispering and laughing quietly. The passage is lit up only by neon paint, bright and confusing on the bodies and walls.
The street becomes narrower and narrower, the road bumpier and more potholed, but you run harder to make it through to the other side. People shout and exclaim as you push your way forward, and do it again when the hoverskaters pass through them with violence. You see the light at the end of the alley and sprint harder, emerging – and at the last minute, you slide left. The hoverskaters miss your sidestep and forge on straight ahead, into the train tracks below – their skates touch the live electric wires, shocking them before they can de-power.
You try to catch your breath, gulping for air. Holding your chest, you move cautiously to the edge of the tracks and look down at the seared bodies of your pursuers. The tattoos of their employer is unmistakable.
You back away from the tracks and jog along the edge. Finding a crudely made bridge, you balance over it and cross over to the other side. As you look over to where the men fell, you see the hooded figure kneeling. Slowly, she removes her head covering and glares at you, sending fear through you, rejuvenating your exhausted body. You watch as she raises her hand to you, using her fingers to press a button on her watch. Your wrist lets out an ominous jingle in the silence of the night and you look at the screen:
I’m coming for you, Prad.
You choke at the sight of your nickname, your body automatically turns to flight. It sends you running before you can think clearly about where you’re going.
There was no enmity before, no danger to your life, no espionage all those months ago. When you started working on the cure for the disease you never dreamed you’d be the one to untangle the molecules, to figure out the chemistry, to put the atoms in the correct order. Of course the revelation was met with joy, the research and development was a privilege and the final antibody a success.
“I don’t understand,” you remember saying slowly. The heads of various pharmaceutical companies, a few government officials and your fellow scientists were all sitting around a pretentious marble table.
“You want us to...stop development?”
“That’s correct Miss…” the government official’s voice trailed off. He looked around for assistance in remembering your name, but everyone was silent. You remember how his face twitched unpleasantly.
“For the moment, we’d like to pause the development. The president, and other world leaders for the matter feel that this medication may not be the best option for the people.”
Your supervisor shifted in his chair and cleared his throat. “Why exactly is that, sir?” he asked, his face hard, his jaw clenched.
“We’ve basically developed a cure. With more funding, more research, we could eliminate the virus completely!”
An exchange of looks happened, before the government official leaned forward. “Elimination is the key, of course,” he said forcing sincerity where there was none. “But politically, economically, hell, psychologically, now is not the time to hype up the public about something that might not –“
“Sir, these antibodies work. We’ve trialled it on ourselves and we’ve trialled it on volunteers in the lab. We’ve been cured!” You said earnestly.
The official turned his eyes on you, angry. “Be that as it may, Miss-”
“It’s Doctor, Doctor Jivani,” you interrupted impatiently. Out of the corner of your eye, you saw your supervisor’s face curl into a smile.
The official stood up abruptly, his face red, his neck reddening. He glared at you, shifting his shoulders forward, attempting to tower over you at the table.
“Well, Doctor,” he sneered with emphasis. “Let me be clear: this country’s government, the leaders of our allied countries and our counterparts will no longer be funding this project. We’re shutting you down.” He finished with a smug smirk.
And that was the end of it. Or so you thought. You tear up as you keep jogging, turning to duck into an alleyway. You glance at your phone.
You need to make up time fast. You look around. There’s a parking lot across the road. You glance left and right, but the yellow-lit street is deserted. You jog over quickly and push through the metal gate. Walking along the spaces, you spot a pick up truck and head over to it. A glance through the driver’s side window tells you that the keys aren’t in the ignition. You sigh.
You put the suitcase down and lift your phone to the door handle. Selecting an app, you tap a button and a tiny laserpointer unlocks from the side. Carefully you use it to burn through the key hole. The lock melts off and falls to the ground below with a clink. You shut off the app and open the door quickly. Lifting the suitcase, you carefully reach over to place it on the passenger seat and then hop into the car.
Thank science I still remember how to do this.
Your skills as a car thief come in handy at last. You hot wire the car, rip the alarm cord and start the ignition. It hums to life. Carefully you pull out of the parking in relief. As you drive out of the lot, you send a voice command to your phone.
“Take me to Central Station.”
It complies: Taking you to Central Station. Here is the fastest route.
You drive numbly, focusing on your destination, desperate to reach the end. After a while, you glance at your phone for the time.
You step on the accelerator to move faster. The roads are empty, the real traffic is above you in the hover-highway.
And that’s why alarm bells go off in your mind when you see a vehicle following you in the distance. You rev some more and squint at the rear view mirror. A motorbike, a rider with no helmet just a hood.
You speed up, the bike speeds up. You’re 10 minutes away from your destination now, you know you have to lose her.
I can’t lead her to the exchange site!
She’s gaining on you now, not hiding her pursuit, not playing predator but becoming the hunter. Your breath is shallow as the needle on the speedometer goes higher, the old truck groans with effort. You swerve left and right as a distraction, eventually taking a left much too wide. The tyres squeal, burning and smoking up the night air, the smell hitting your nostrils instantly.
You choke as you recover control of the steering wheel, but the truck has found itself on the pavement and you’re dodging trash cans and unused parking meters. As you swerve back onto the tarred road, the motorbike has gained on you, sliding up quickly so that you’re neck and neck.
The rider removes her hood, glancing at you through the window then back at the road in intervals. She makes a signal with her hands, that you desperately attempt to ignore, accelerating more. The pick-up truck is struggling to stay intact at this speed, the tyres feel as though they’re wearing out quickly.
You let out a frightened gasp.
The motorbike is deliberately colliding into the side of the truck.
“Are you crazy!” you exclaim loudly, angry and terrified. You see the station up ahead. Glancing through the window, you make eye contact with the rider for a split second, before you grab the suitcase off the passenger seat, open the driver’s side door and jump out of the fast-moving car.
You land, rolling painfully on the tar. You feel skin tear on your legs, hands, face and elbows, but the suitcase is protected. The truck meanwhile, hurtles headfirst into the steps of the station, crashing at the foot of it, erupting into shards of glass and smoke. A small fire ignites in the bonnet.
You stand up unevenly, head pounding, body aching, and stumble towards the stairs.
“Pradhi! Are you crazy!” your pursuant yells at you across the night. You keep walking fast, hurting all over, ignoring the familiarity of her tone.
“You could’ve killed us both! You could’ve killed yourself!” she shouts, getting closer. You don’t look back, but you choke, eyes wet with blood and tears.
“Just hand over the suitcase Pradhi!” she shouts, cursing in what you think is pain. You pause and turn around to look at your twin sister.
Palin stops in her tracks. She’s holding her arm, which is mangled. A glance behind her reveals that the bike slid into the crash too. She’s covered in blood, breathing shallowly.
“Pali,” you beg, backing away. “Pali please, let me do this.”
She shakes her head, stumbling forward determinedly. She always was tougher than you.
Maybe…Maybe this is it.
“Pali, please,” you repeat, crying now. “Please you know this is the right thing to do. We have to save humanity.”
She’s coming closer, her head covered with blood, her mouth red from the same thing. “I can’t let you P,” she slurs. “Gimme the case!”
You shake your head crying. Turning, you gather up the last of your strength to run, somehow forcing your legs to pump as you clamber up the steps and into the station. You hear Pali groan behind you, but her footsteps are just as urgent.
Inside the deserted station, the big clock hangs ominously in the centre of the ceiling. There’s a faint glow of light from the streetlamps outside, shining through the dirty windows. Your breathing is laboured as you jog, hurting all over. Pali still chases you, hitting walls and stumbling behind.
Beneath the big clock, the silhouette of a cloaked figure is visible. You exhale desperately trying to catch your breath, calling out to them.
“Hey!” you exclaim, your strained voice echoing into the empty darkness. “Take it! Take the suitcase!” you cry desperately.
The cloaked figure startles, then sets off at a run towards you. You beg your body to move just a few inches more. The cloak nears, an unfamiliar man.
“Is this it?” he asks quickly. “Holy crap, you look awful, are you okay? We should get help-”
“No! Take it!” You cry leaning on him and shoving the suitcase in his hands. “Go! Run! She’s right behind me!”
He pauses in surprise, confused. Then he looks up at the sound of Pali entering. He gasps and clutches the case. You turn around and look at your twin. She’s holding a gun now, her hand shaking. She can’t make the shot clearly.
“Go! Run!” you shout, not looking at the man. “I’ll cover you.” He hesitates for a split second and then sets off on a sprint. Pali pulls the trigger, the shot echoes in the empty station. The bullet flies into the dark hitting nothing.
You rise from your half-ducked position and breath rapidly. Pali stares at you, gun still pointed in your direction. Her body language conveys defeat.
“It’s over,” you say lifting your palms, tears streaming down your face. “It’s over Pali! He took the sample. It’s gone, it’s going over the boarder!”
Pali shifts closer, still breathing hard. Her head is bent away from you, you can’t see her face. You take a tentative step forward and she looks up.
“Pali,” you sob. “We have to save humanity. We have to have a cure!”
Pali spits out blood. She raises the gun, pointing it at you.
“This could have ended differently,” she says, breathing with difficulty. “If you just did as you were told. But you never listen do you Pradhi? You always have to be better-”
“What are you talking about!” you cry moving closer to your sister. “This isn’t about us! This is about the disease! This is about the world!”
Pali shakes her head, she looks at you and you freeze. Her hands steady for a second. You hear a bang. Your sister's face is a blur, there's searing pain.
And then you black out.