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an android dreams of electric watermelons

Chapter Text

They never cut it clean. Not completely. They always left threads.

 

Leaning against the cracked ceramic rim, Johnny watches the now chilly water lap around his knees in the tub. It’s late. No, early, actually. 4 am. Maybe 5. His watch’s been broken for two weeks. Now he reads the sky —which works until sundown.

 

There’s a reason he’s staying away from it all. Time, that is. He’s got no use for it. Not with the new job they’ve strapped him into. When they need him, they call. It’s internal. It’s all internal now.

 

Data storage. Wireless transfer. That’s what they called it. Sure, there weren’t any physical wires, but that didn’t mean the transfer was seamless. Johnny’s skin still burns even under the water. Just hours ago, the most recent transfer.

 

You get a hyperrun of the memory entering your system —it lasts for less than a second. Flashes of things. Followed by flattened shrieking like a blank tv channel. Muffled under a column of digital water —as real as it felt now, then ejection. Shick. You’re out.

 

The effects come later.

 

While the file finds a vacant slot in Johnny’s mnemonic, he'll get glitches. Audiovisual leakage. Sometimes they’re tiny. You barely feel a thing.

 

Some kind of freak accident. Fire —or something like fire. Lungfuls of car exhaust. Crushed under the burning hull of melting glass and metal. When they dragged her out of the mess, nearly an entire leg was lost to the haze. Blackened blood spidered down her forearms, pooled dark into her shirt. Granite and ash caked her cheek, the exposed parts of her thigh.

 

When Johnny met her this evening, she used a walker. He noticed a slight stiffness in her left calf —prosthetic —plastic most likely, the foot didn’t carry as much weight. Hovers momentarily before she set it down, each step she took.

 

She should’ve saved up for a better prosthetic. Or better anything, really. These transfers weren’t cheap. They also didn’t guarantee recovery. They left holes in the system. Brains don’t like holes.

 

You can’t predict how the gaps get filled.

 

Sometimes your brain will make stuff up. Maybe it'll be worse. Then you apply to get the fake memories transferred out too —if you could afford it.

 

It’s worse when your brain can't refill the gaps. You claw blindly trying to recover the lost data. It doesn’t work. Even if you find your Carrier, you’ve got miles of internal storage to go through. How will you know where your real memories are if you can’t even remember them?

 

So the operation’s permanent, essentially. You gotta be sure you wanna clear search history. You’ll never get it back. You can’t get it back.

 

Johnny had vomited by the side of a building, couple blocks from his own place. Couldn’t even reach the garbage chute before he went over. All over the base of the graffitied wall, clogged in pigeon shit and beer caps. Sharp spraypaint fumes shot up his nose as he caught his breath. He threw up again.

 

Now he looks down at the pink, raised marks along his arms, blurred underwater. There’s more along his ribs, across his quads, down his calves. By now, he just feels a humming sting. Before, the burning had been so bad he tried to claw off all his skin.

 

If her memories were that sharp, maybe it was better to do a fragment wipe. Maybe Johnny’ll check in with her from time to time, see how she’s doing. Try to opt her out of all the colourful drugs the clinic will try to schmooze her into.

 

Something just didn’t feel right about it —injecting liquid happiness into the holes leftover from relocated brain pain. And it wasn’t a one-time thing —it never was. They’ll sell you a value pack of twelve bottles at a discounted price. Easy. Three down and you’ve developed an addiction. 

 

Withdrawal’s worse than death, pretty much. People do Naked Lunch level shit —carve holes in their thighs and choke up on knockoffs —less than 1% of the original serum. At one point, there’s less you in you than the yellow stuff. Fucking nightmare.

 

Johnny’s never touched the stuff, won’t go anywhere near it. Sure, every time he heads out he can’t escape their brightly saturated speedsong dancing across the billboards skyhigh. They’ve got whole condos armoured up with that animated pixelshit —and it’s honestly kind of beautiful when you see it from afar.

 

Up close, Johnny gets chills. Most ads got holographic segments and every time some giant lady reaches her arm to touch his shoulder, he shrinks away, would rather get caught in the pounding rain. At least that was real.

 

Sometimes he’s really lonely though. He’ll stay and let her slip a hand through his hair. You can feel it, just barely. Tiny particles of heat, they were made of light, after all.

 

Maybe he should consider getting—

 

“Wow. You sure look shit.”

 

Johnny snorts, craning his head to face the familiar silhouette leaning against the battered door frame. Jungwoo sidles up by the other side of the tub, full Akira racer style, eyeing the marks over his arms. 

 

“Kinky. Invite me over next time.” Sighs. “-you’ve got no idea how hard it is to catch a break these days. People got serious trust issues.”

 

“I took the transfer.” Doesn’t meet his eyes.

 

“You what— ?” Jungwoo sputters. “-fuckin’ idiot —I told you I’d take it —I’ve got more storage space —we went over this—

 

“-You already took last week’s —you know, that kid who got fucked up by his dad since he was like, ten, and now he’s what, forty-seven? You locked yourself in the bathroom for three days. Data spills aren’t even supposed to last that long, I don’t know how it could’ve—

 

“-Shitty connection —they overprepped his neural port and the channel gigafucked—

 

Johnny blew a fat raspberry. Whenever Jungwoo got mad he started making up words and it was impossible to keep fighting with a straight face. So screw it —he laughed even though it made his clawed up sides hurt —because, hell, laughing felt good. Really good. Like better than anything kinda good.

 

Sure, Jungwoo glares at him for a moment or so, because here he goes again, not taking him seriously. Nobody took him seriously —not with that platinum coconut cut of his —making him look like he was gonna join the Wiggles, though none of them were actually blonde.

 

When both of them stop laughing, Jungwoo’s red moto jacket soaked, hair sticking to his face, the guy sighs, shaking his head. Pokes a finger by Johnny’s ear.

 

“Let me read you. Come on, hyung, it’ll just be a second.”

 

Then Johnny rolls his eyes and runs cache mode so Jungwoo can do his scan.

 

When he’s finished, the guy flicks him in the nose.

 

“You’re like 12 minutes before full storage. Do you even have enough to buy a new hard drive?”

 

“Jungwoo, it’s called a brain. ” Johnny sighs.

 

“I’ll start calling it one when you start using it.” He reaches into his backpocket. “-here, I’ve got some cream to ease the sting…”

 

“Lucas went out again?”

 

“That obvious?” Jungwoo smirked, half-heartedly, eyes down. “-wild idiot’s probably flipping the whole city upside down looking for jobs. He’ll take anything. Idiot.”

 

“Wild idiot’s also your boyfriend.” Johnny grins. Adds quieter. “-he’s adapted to it a lot better than we have, it seems.”

 

“Yeah and he’s younger —so it hasn’t gotten to him yet. Sooner or later he’ll reach our level.”

 

“Our level? God, you say it like it’s a good thing.”

 

“Having a reality check is a good thing. Right now he’s off in Xuxiland —parading around in pajama bottoms and some gorgeous pink blazer I’ve got no idea where he got…”

 

Pssh. Just ask him to let you wear it next time y’all bone—

 

Smacks water in Johnny’s face, laughing. “-damn nasty…”

 

After it’s quiet again, Jungwoo leans his head against the other. Flattens tiny bubbles appearing on the tub water surface.

 

“Why’d we sign up for this again…?”

 

Snorts. “-cause it’s easy? At least work-wise, you know —head over to someone’s house, whole process takes less than a minute. Sure, it hurts for a bit, but then it’s over. And we get our own place —government-issued, whatever. Free food delivery.”

 

“Ha. What else could we possibly need, huh?”

 

“This whole place does kinda suck.” Johnny agrees, eyeing the cottage cheese ceiling texture. Some areas darkened and bulged inwards from constant heavy rain. Soon enough, larger pests would get in. “-there’s already ants crawling between cracks in the kitchen tiles. I think they live in the vents or something.”

 

“We’ve always had an ant problem.” The other shook his head. “-along with a dozen other housing problems…”

 

Johnny sighs. Maintenance had screwed up Jungwoo’s plumbing last month and now the guy had to run all the way here just to take a leak. Public washrooms gave him the creeps. Security cameras everywhere, man. What's privacy anymore?

 

It’s gotta be a conspiracy. Jungwoo asserted a couple nights ago, eyes shining. He dropped in around this time too, when only the underground would be awake. Even cops weren’t up at this hour. They’ll screw up our apartments one by one ‘til we’re crowded out together in 20-person rooms. Tear up the foundation and stack up on more high rises. Maybe they’ll even start building our lots upside down —you know, like City of Ember kinda thing.

 

There’s already guys who live down there, dude. No way. Johnny chuckled. You need a break. You’re spending way too much time around the blockbuster section of that Japanese convenience store down the street. The guy behind the counter —Yuta, wasn’t it —was pretty hot, Johnny had to admit. Gave people butterflies whenever he flashed a smile their way. Pssh. Shameless flirt.

 

Guy’s got connections —that's just a front. Jungwoo’s red moto jacket shoulders shrugged, blonde hair bouncing. Maybe he can help us out? Not a bad idea to make some friends around here, either. The other wasn’t so sure. If he’s friends with everybody, whose side’s he on?  Knocked him lightly in the side. Who cares? I heard he’s got all kinds of contraband hidden underneath the floorboards.

 

What —you planning on startin' a revolution? Jungwoo rolled his eyes at him. I’m not that stupid, hyung. We don’t have the numbers —and even if we did, what good would it do? Elites would probably just hijack the damn operation and persuade us to join their ever-growing military base…

 

“You got any more of those, uh, tongue fizzle things?”

 

Pfft —you mean Pop Rocks?” The blonde digs in his side sleeve pocket —retrieves his second last pack —Cherry Bomb flavour. “-never thought your stoic ass would develop a candy addiction…

 

“It’s not an addiction.” Flings a handful in his mouth, shoulders relaxing when the sizzling sets in. Sighs. “-I can’t really describe it. It’s like a particular feeling I get when I have them...like…you know…”

 

“Like an addiction.” Smiles different when he sees Johnny’s not joking. “-okay. I think I know what you’re getting at.”

 

“And you’re not gonna bug me about it?”

 

“It’s your life, hyung.” Turns to face the open window. Climbs over the edge of the tub, grits when Johnny grabs an ankle, kicks free. Nearly slips. Swings to rest on the ledge, cracked, damp plaster digging into his ass. “-you’re more than capable of destroying it all by yourself.”

 

“Gee, thanks, dude,” Surges up from the tub, one hand gripping the steel railing, other hooking the towel in and mussing it through his own hair. Steps out, wraps it tight around his waist. “-and how’s your…”

 

Oh. Disappearing on him again. Guess he shouldn’t be surprised at this point.

 

By the time all the water’s drained out, Johnny can see the edges of the sun turning the rooftops into soft ember light. Bodies waltzed across the adjacent walls, in neon blue overlay. Fading in and out. Wavering.

 

That’s his world now.

 

Blurring the line between real and not real. What could he do about it? Slips into his chrome-synth pullover and tries to hack in some sleep when his head hits the pillow.

 

...

 

“So this is where all the unregulated shit is...”

 

“No fucking way,”

 

Hendery grins as he leads Mark through the gargantuan tangle of vegetation, weeding and rooting like a swarm of swamp eels. Just some feet away lay the ocean, blanched almost bone-white from artificial calcification. Anything that ever returned to shore was long dead. They’d know. They’re the only ones allowed here.

 

Android skin. Impenetrable. Cleaners, they were, supposedly. They couldn’t keep anything they found. Some guy tried once. Uses his mouth to sort trash now.

 

Mark still couldn’t believe it.

 

You’re not supposed to find the Unregulated Zone. Ground-shot holograms screen it as miles more beach. Then one day Mark tripped over an invisible root. Crashed into a whole bed of invisible roots.

 

All Hendery had to do was shoot at a few fizzly regions. Palm lasers. When Mark first met him, he wrote him off as some token rich kid —what, in that Colgate-white private school uniform, meticulously swept hair, and Oxfords. Soaked in all the latest enhancements, courtesy of his parents. That is, until Hendery used the same lasers to break Haechan —Mark’s only Carrier friend, out of prison, no less.

 

He’d gotten caught up in some stupid, convoluted shit. Carriers were only supposed to intake bad memories. Leave the good stuff. Haechan had gotten into the good stuff. He couldn’t help it. He had a horrible transfer three months ago. They'd deemed him inactive for a time. He’s doing better now. Found a place. Away from all this, this dust and fracture. Safehouse, perse. 

 

So Hendery’s cool. Mark had been wrong about him. 

 

Anyhow, the screen's down. No one's caught on. Yet.

 

Now here they were.

 

God, the green nearly blinded them first time they saw it. Mark almost broke down crying.

 

Now he sinks down beside a long-forgotten vessel. Lets his hands smooth over the cool, hard surface. Swept off the sand, pressed his cheek against it, sighing. “-shit, I haven’t seen one of these since…”

 

“Yeah. I know.” Hendery settles down, already hacking at the roots to get it free. “-feels like forever, doesn’t it?”

 

“You’ve heard the rumours though, right?” Mark frowns, still eyeing the heavy fruit.  “-apparently airborne parasites have wormed in. Merged with the seeds. We’ll be out in five years if we finish one of these.”

 

“You wanna leave it then?”

 

“Hell no!” The android laughs. Thrusts in a stray women’s razor he found along the shore yesterday. Carved out a cylindrical piece, pops it in his mouth, peel and all. “-damn sick of only seeing these things in my dreams, yo.”

 

He's not afraid of losing some limbs. Mark knows a guy. He’s got it covered.

 

“Shit, you hear that?” Cocks his head to the urbanscape —glimpses a line of red dots homing in. Sirens. Circling, raging. Hell. His city was just so mad all the time.

 

“Yeah, man —time to book it,” Already dashing off to the low cliffs where sand met grass. Kicking off the dunes blown in from the morning. “-c’mon, I know a shortcut!”

 

“Wooooo!” Laughs as they squeeze through the decaying bars of the sewage channel, sand grains catching between their fingers, sneaking down shirt necks, racing back into the underbelly of their red city. Leaps over piles of empty bottles and used needles. “-aw snap, I think some happy juice splashed onto my shorts!”

 

“Hahahahaha! Oiiiiiiiiii!”

 

Mark throws his head back, as their shouts and whoops reverberate off the walls, extending one arm out and letting the razor scrape along the surface. Carving his mark into the sphere. Endless. Limitless. He’s coming back again. “-it’s Neo-fucking-City, yooooo!”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“I think we lost ‘em for a bit…”

 

Mark settles along the curb by the rusted ladder. Hendery stops a few feet ahead, eyes darting about the darker recesses of the tunnel. Clear. Sinks down next to the guy, exhales, rolling his eyes.

 

“Ah, man —you still have that?”

 

“Hell’s yeah.” The guy clutches the melon closer to his chest. “-this shit’s m’baby now —mofo’s goin’ wherever we goin’.”

 

“That “mofo” is gonna get us arrested. Again.”

 

“We’ll get out of it.” Shrugs. “-you’ll get us out of it. Right?”

 

“Just eat the whole thing here, Mark —we’ve got time.” Hendery looks around. “-look, if I can’t dodge us from the bars this time, there’s no telling when we’ll get out…”

 

“Geez —you acting like you've been there before or someth…” Carves out another cylindrical chunk, offers it to him. Other guy takes it after a pause. “-can’t be nearly as bad as they say it is, yo.”

 

“Worse.” Hendery shook his head. “-it’s gotta be worse. I know a guy who’s actually been there.” Stares at the ground. “-they lied to you, ya know? Where they sent Donghyuck —that wasn’t prison.”

 

“Then where was it? Sure as fuck wasn’t paradise, that’s for sure.”

 

“But he still got out, right? Then that wasn’t it. You can’t get out of the real prisons here.” Sighs. “-trust me. You’ll run into someone eventually. You’ll be able to tell.”

 

...

 

“Ah, scheiss…!” Yangyang grit, scanning his nano-feed. “-running out of bytes again, dammit…”

 

“You know, Schumach-kun —if you spent a little less on vintage race car parts, you just might be able to afford this month’s rent…”

 

Groans, making eyes at the amused shopkeeper. “-oh, c’mon, Yuta-hyung...spot me a few today? I’m seriously running out —I don’t even have enough for chicken ramen…”

 

“I literally spotted you last week…” Narrows in on a guy trying to pocket three teriyaki hexapods in the rare snacks aisle. “-hey! Oi! Bakayarou —I fucking see you! Yeah, put that shit back —next time you try that I’m feedin’ you to my buddy Goku—

 

“Who’s Goku?” Yangyang frowns. The other picks stray glitter off his eyelids, sighing. “-a blue-ringed octopus one of my wack exes bought for me last Christmas? Kinda wanna sell him to the underground Asian seafood market after the shit he pulled last week…”

 

“Damn, what’d he do?” The octopus or the ex?

 

Reaches up to rearrange the canned digi-tuna into a clean row again. Same Great Taste. New Gigaplex Fibres—Now Mercury-Free!

 

Rolls his eyes. “-I forgot to feed him, right? Sucker flubbers his way outta the tank and stings my one-night-scan right in the a 

 

“-Aight, aight —that’s more than…” Definitely the octopus. Slides the magnetic icebox open, reaches in for a 6-pack of Superhuman energy drinks. “-hyung, I might be in no position to tell you this but you gotta stop letting weird people into your apartment...”

 

“Dammit, Schu-schu —I know…” Yanks out a Vanta-cloth and bent down in, wiping at the screen juice exploded around the bottom of the freezer. Neon green soaks in, disappears into the fabric. “-damn fucker tried to sue me for second-degree strangulation —as if I planned for this shi…”

 

“Anyways, how’s the new face merger coming along?”

 

Yuta’s eyes lit up, the first sympathetic look he’s given him all day. “-god, I thought you’d never ask. It's on a whole new level since the Moon series. Come on, it’s in here.”

 

Weaves them both past the crowds of colourful packages and whimsically-shaped hair products. Yangyang’s reflection warps into splashy nebulae as they pass rows of emerald green soju bottles. Fluorescent lights burn pink overhead, bouncing off Yuta’s shiny black java vest. Twists free from a woman who tries to enter bytes straight into his wrist — Sweetheart, I told you already, I don’t do that —try Sakuhara’s down the street —laser beetle sign, you can’t miss it.

 

Flips up the plastic flaps, letting the younger guy into storage. Chills making him grip his arms, elbows tucked against ribs. Follows Yuta down the dusty steel shelves until they reached a dark circular screen. Chuckles. Vanta, vanta, vanta… Once they perfected wormhole entry, Yuta would definitely be the first guy to get the fuck outta this place.  

 

Reaches his hand straight into the screen and pulls out a translucent slab of fabric. Even in the dim setting, it shimmered amid billions of tiny hairline creases. The same way skin did.

 

Yuta flattens it out, lets it flex into shape. Yangyang’s heart lodges in his throat.

 

“God, you actually...Shit, I can’t believe you really made this…”

 

“Mesmerizing, isn’t it?”

 

“It looks exactly like him.” The younger guy shivered. Shook his head. “-no, we can’t -we can't do this —it’s too fucked up…”

 

“Oh, come on —you have any idea how much this’ll get on the dark market —you’ll have enough chicken ramen for the rest of your life…!”

 

Yangyang looks around, makes sure no one’s anywhere near them. Feels sick for even having brought up the whole idea. Now look at where they were. He can’t look at the face merger without seeing the news broadcast from last week. It’s wrong. It’s just fucking wrong. We don’t even know him. Yuta, however, doesn’t appear the least bit concerned.

 

“Just look at it. He’s beautiful.”

 

Turns away.

 

“That doesn’t matter.”

 

“What?”

 

“I’m not doing this —nobody’s gonna buy it.”

 

Yuta scoffs, tucking the mask back in the Vanta.  

 

“Don’t play dumb, Yangyang —you know how many people would want this. I’ve already got a long list of women who’d pay a fat price to get their husbands to wear this thing. They don’t give a shit. They think it’s hot. It’s just his face, not his brain

 

“This is disgusting.”

 

“He’s got Hollywood written all over that—

 

“Listen to me, hyung —we mass produce these things —it’s over for us. One day we’re gonna wake up in his apartment —in his fucking apartment. We can’t do this. I don’t care. I’m not getting mixed up in this kind of shit.”

 

“You know what —whatever.” Strides past him, making his way back into the bright store again. “-I’ll drop by Das Ress this Thursday —not like you own the place anyways. We’ll see how it goes. I might even save you a cut if you lighten up a bit.”

 

Watches the plastic flaps swing back and forth, the guy gone. Arms crossed, staring at the floor.

 

“Unbelievable.” Unfuckingbelievable.

 

Even if the guy didn’t track them down, they still had other issues to worry about. Johnny would totally shank his ass, for one thing, Yangyang thought as he climbed onto his megacycle and sped down the flashing lane.

 

...

 

“We gotta find a place to stop for the night.” Looking around, grimacing. “-not even sundown and cops're already cloggin’ the streets…”

 

Psst. Look! Window’s open!”

 

Hendery follows Mark’s gaze along the glossy black screenwalls, laser-lined in technicolor flo-glow rims, snaking up like classic Atari vines. Soared up so high, they blurred into the sinking sky. A slightly darker square hung out about twenty feet northeast from where they stood. Damn. If Mark hadn’t pointed it out, he’d never have seen it.

 

“And how do you plan on getting in there?” Security’s crazy around here. Glances down at their equally unlikely house-guest. With the watermelon too…

 

“Chillax, bro. It's simple. We’ll wait for the Kandinsky soap commercial to come on along this wall, two minutes —then I’ll mecha-split and hover the melon to blend in with the dancing shapes in the background—

 

“-And what about me— ? Not exactly sure how I’m s'pposed to split my limbs from my body without, uh, exsanguinating …”

 

“Shit.” Then Mark’s eyes lit up. Clicks open his wrist compartment, pulls out a thin slip of fabric. “-swiped this baby off’ve Yuta’s byte-reader cabinet while he was off in storage with some kid. Here, put it on.”

 

“Far out, man —this is a Moon Taeil face merger —yo, he’s like the richest guy in the district…”

 

“You could go anywhere.”

 

“I could go anywhere.”

 

Mark giggles. “-he’s also kinda short and so are you. Y’all gonna match, no sweat.”

 

Elbows him in the carbon-synth ribs, laughing as he smooths it on, disappearing behind the enormous tinted double-doors.

 

“Alright —now for my magic trick.” Counts down from eleven, lacing his fingers together —Come on, Mr. Absolutely-fully-capable, you got this. Sucks in one last breath. “-here goes nothin’...”

 

Do you remember...21st night of September? Love was changing the minds of pretenders...While chasing the clouds away… Flashes of blurring blue. Violet. Sprays of silver —fluttering down like dandelion seeds. Okay, here come the bubbles, Mark thinks, it’s now or never…

 

As the glassy chrome geometry barrels across the glowing screen, Mark sets the melon into hover mode as he wobbles and spins along the backdrop, doing the best live Kandinsky impression he’s ever done. He’s fantastic —no one even as much as glances as the mecha-split android somersaults along the wall —rolling into the open window parcel by parcel.

 

Damp ceiling paint odors curl up his nose as he reconnects under the bedside table. Mark looks around, frowning at his surroundings. Lights were down, maybe broken? Scuff-marks all over the loose wooden tiles, crusty and scraped up. Ants. Radiator clonking like a bunch of giant radishes got thrown inside. Shit. This gotta be the ugliest dig I’ve ever been into…

 

Tilts his head to peer up at a shifting mound along the low, creaking bed. Dark, messy hair stuck to his forehead, clung to his cheeks. Lashes fluttered. Fingers brush the corner of a dusty eye. Makes a small noise. 

 

Mark ducks down as the guy reaches behind, stretching his long arms, knocking gently into the wall. Muttering, then a yawn. Flattens himself under the bed as the other swung his feet down, calves casting two long shadows across Mark’s face. Shuffles into the nearby bathroom, in nothing but an oversized chrome-synth sweater.

 

When he leans over to hold his glass under running water, Mark decides that he’s got the longest, nicest legs he’s ever seen in his life.

 

Kicks himself immediately for thinking that.

 

Johnny turns around, frowning. Huh. He could’ve sworn he heard something in the bedroom.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

When Hendery gets on the elevator, he shuffles closer to the corner as it stops on the seventh floor. Embellished Balmain loafers step in. Just act natural. Keeps his eyes glued to the rose marbled tiles. Readjusts his face merger. Tries to find faces in the jagged swirls. Runs the words over and over again in his head. It’s not the end of the world...It’s not the end of the…

 

Catches a glimpse of the figure in the mirrored walls. Flushes red. No way. No freakin’ hell frickin’ way.

 

Calm as a sand dollar, the real Moon Taeil stands right next to him, unable to hide the slight smirk on his face. He looks like he wants to say something. But it seems like he’s certain it’ll be way more interesting if he lets Hendery start.

 

A couple beats later, the younger guy decides he has no choice.

 

“Um, uh, a-annyeonghaseyo…”

 

“Annyeong,” Peers at Hendery’s face, chuckling. “-jalsaenggyeotta.”

 

“Y-you too…!” Hendery laughs weakly. “-really, really, handsome…”

 

“So you’re him, right?” Taeil’s tone becomes serious. Hands him a key. “-room 1127. I’ll let Yuta know we met.” Squints. “-you came earlier than expected.”

 

The fake Moon grips the key in his palm, nodding nervously. “-yeah. I did. I definitely did.”

 

As the elevator reopens at nineteen, Taeil chuckles again as he walks out. “-we should switch places sometime. I could really use a vacation.”

 

When the door closes, Hendery rips off the merger and shoves it in his backpocket. Damn. What the hell was that? So he was expecting me —or somebody who was gonna wear his face —and meet him here...?

 

Shook his head. Gotta tell Mark about this later. We just got ourselves into some deep shit.

 

...

 

“Slippers...slippers…”

 

Feet pace back and forth as Mark held his breath, hoping to God he wouldn’t be seen. Don’t look down, oh my cheezus, don’t look down… Even if he mecha-split right now, he’d still get caught —Guy’s place’s so bare you’d spot a Cheeto crumb on the floor, dammit…

 

Wait. Over there. Craning his head just to the left, Mark spots one slipper peeking by his left elbow, just under the bed. Now where’s the other one… There! Slightly wedged under his right foot, near the wall below the headboard. Okay, one at a time… Casually slides the closer slipper into view, knocking lightly into the guy’s foot.

 

“Oh, hey —there’s one!” Shuffles closer to Mark —in panic, he skids further down, heel squelching into something moist and sticky. Ouaiiaioiiee, eww, what the fu...barbecue sauce…? Feet pause, guy staying still. Shit. He’s onto me —he’s frickin’ onto me —deadass never should’ve co—

 

“Hello?”

 

Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit—

 

“Oh, jeez. No. Aww, man —why you gotta be like this…” Mutters to himself, reaching an arm down and dragging out the abused box of leftover pizza. “-oh, motherfu—”

 

Flung the cardboard away. Ants jump and scatter in the air —more teeming in vibrating islands along the gooey slices. Flippin’ shit, Johnny —single life really got you fucked up—

 

Meanwhile, Mark’s trying his hardest not to scream as a small army of the little guys start crawling up his leg. Oh, ma god —I feel their tiny feet running all over m —fuck, they already at my knee —holy shit, what if they go in my—

 

Banging sounds from down the hall —someone’s knocking at the door. Weird, I didn’t know they still did that nowadays… Hears feet padding further away, sighing.

 

As soon as Johnny’s out the room, Mark dashes into the inner bathroom, tearing off his pants and slapping every moving black dot he sees. When he’s done, his skin’s all red and buzzing and covered in sweat. Who the fuck leaves barbecue sauce pizza under their bed to rot—? Man, can’t believe I almost liked his crusty ass... You can do better, Mark, you can do better…

 

Now gotta clean that foot… Swings up his right leg, heel hitting the counter. Gets goosebumps when he sees all the half-dead ants trapped in the barbecue sauce along his toes  —tears off a shred of toilet paper just wipe off the excess first. Gotta be the most yuck day of my life, yikes. Eyes the lights as he tosses out the wad into the toilet.  

 

Wrenches the tap open and squirms when the water runs brown first —almost slipping —grips the counter edge just in time. Stuck his foot into the sync, spritzing on some soap, scrubbing hard. Geez, these really some wack ants —frickin’ stinging me while they dead —I don’t even think wasps do that…Wait, wha...

 

Picks a shiny sliver from behind a toenail —a memory chip…?   Slips it into his shoulder compartment.  Lemme check this out later.

 

Freezes when he hears footsteps getting louder, then right at the—

 

“Show yourself —I know you’re in here!”

 

Johnny flung out the door, stuck his head in the room. Looks left. Looks right. Peers around the corners, behind the toilet, all around the floor. Sinks down, whips open the cupboard. Ha! Found y— huh…? Nothing. Just a pile of dusty bottles, spare toothbrushes and unopened packages of soap and toilet paper. 

 

“The f…” He grit. “-but I swear I heard the tap running…!”

 

“Didn’t the water shut down again today?” Yangyang called from outside. “-maybe you didn’t screw the tap tightly enough and then —shplurghshshka you know?”

 

“Yeah. Yeah, maybe you’re right.” Johnny nods, sighing, turning around. A mild, spastic drilling disturbs the ceiling. Snorts. “-it happens so often sometimes I forget about it.” Yawns. “-hey, if you need to use the can, there’s water in the tub for afterwards.”

 

“Jeez, this world is so backwards,” The younger guy laughs. “-like you’d think in 2127 they’d have toilets that laser-ionize your little astronauts away… Water’s so last century, ya know what I mean?”

 

“Hey, I like the water.” Johnny argues. Mark grits, fighting to stay still against the bathroom ceiling. It’s so cramped he’s gotta squeeze himself into something like an angry hermit crab hitting mid-woah. Every now and then, the drilling rattles through his whole frame and he almost slips. “-yo, imagine if you forgot to get up before you flushed —your whole entire butt would be laser-ionized, my du—

 

-Pfft— they’d safeguard for that for sure —c’mon, we’d all get, like, titanium bums and the lasers wouldn’t work on tha—

 

“Aughhh, nooo… ” Johnny grips his backpockets. “-for the record, I actually really like my butt, yo. So I’mma keep it au naturel.”

 

Snorts. Johnny narrows his eyes. Okay, last time I checked —taps don’t snort. Heads over to the bathroom again, flinging the door back, this time whipping his face straight up at the ceiling. Gotch—

 

But that’s all there is. Plain, white ceiling. Sure there were some weird brown splatter marks around the corners from God knows where, but those were there ever since he first came. Drags back the shower curtain. Ha!

 

Nothing.

 

Alright, that’s it —Detective Johnny mode activated:

 

Sticks his whole head into the cupboard, flinging all the bottles, sponges, toothbrushes and plexi-poufs behind him. Soon, a colourful junkyard forms around him, and when Yangyang walks in, hisses, nearly slipping on a pouf. Groans at the ceiling, hands on his hips.

 

“What in the worldwide web are you doing…?” Sighs. Rubs his side, even though he didn’t fall.  “-see, this is exactly why you need to get out more…”

 

“There’s someone in my bathroom, Yangyang —I swear to G—

 

“-You need to, like, stop, and hit refresh. Seriously.” Scoops up the scattered bath-things and starts tossing them back inside. “-come on. It’s been forever since we’ve seen you at Das. I know you’ve got nothing tonight.”

 

Sighs, tipping his head back. “-Yangyang…”

 

“You’ve already filled your digi-quota since Tuesday —what, Jungwoo told.” Rolls his eyes. “-swing by. Come on —it’ll be fun —everybody’s gonna be there—

 

“-Who the heck is everybody?”

 

“Uh, everybody who’s anybody?”

 

“Man, who cares...?” Shook his head. “-not like I even know any of ‘em anyways…”

 

“Um, hyung, you should care.” Yangyang reminds him. “-they are the ones running this whole schnitzelstick —and if you end up living in a ditch next coming neo year —they’re the ones who’re responsible.”

 

“I don’t need connections. ” Johnny rolls his eyes. “-I need a connection…”

 

“Well, maybe we can find that too. Plenty of outlets to choose from, ya know what I mean?”

 

“Awgh, dude… ” Turns back, half-grossed out, half-impressed. Didn’t think a kid like Yangyang made those kinds of jokes. Then again, hang around Yuta long enough and… “-not that kind of connection.”

 

Mark’s practically suffocating right now, smushed to a pancake behind the bathroom door. What's really amazing is that he still hasn't noticed the bigass watermelon under his bed... Pieces of the wall paint have chipped off and fallen into the back of his shirt. Johnny’s still digging in the cupboard —clearly looking for intruders smaller than a human being at this point.

 

“Jeez, I swear —you’re impossible… ” Yangyang glances out the window. “-look, I gotta take off, alright? Be there.”

 

“-Yang—

 

But he’s already gone —disappearing down the hall. When Johnny’s alone again (sort of), he rolls his eyes, getting back up. By now, the drilling's grown to a grating clatter...which would likely get worse in the evening. Oh, what the heck. Nobody wants to be a square, right?

 

...

 

Yo, man —you got any clue where Das is?  Mark’s out in the florid Neo City night, decked in all black, save for a thin silver chain around his neck. Hendery’s voice buzzes back in his invisicom. What, you mean, like, Das Resuka? Or Das Ress —as the regulars call it?

 

Mark shrugged, ducking behind a trash can as a police cruiser rolls by. Sure, what the heck, man —I mean, unless there’s other “Das”es sitting around…? An affirmative noise returns. Nah, that’s the one. Lemme see...from where you’re headed —hey, you’re close! —it’ll be about half a block from there. Kinda secluded, though —look for a dim neon red tiger head —there’ll be an entrance there. And why?

 

Hendery hears him make a noncommittal sound against the backroar of late traffic. Two hours ago, he’d hid in the electrical room on Johnny’s floor, waiting for the two of them to leave and then Mark let him inside. Showed Mark the key Taeil lent him and then headed up to the matching room.

 

He'd urged Mark to hide the watermelon in their new room, but the guy argued it was too risky. What d'we do if someone sees us holdin' that thing in the hall? I'll just keep it here for now. It'll keep longer if it's in the fridge anyways. Had carved out a piece and placed it inside his wrist slot, selected for freeze mode. Safekeeping. And soon it'll be as hard as a knife handle. Who knows when it'll come in handy? 

 

Now Hendery's lounging along the couch, busy with defeating the next boss, sockfeet against a smooth hexa-cushion. He’s set the suite to Comfort mode easier on the eyes with its chrome and ether finishes. He’d wanted to come along, but Mark said he’d go there alone. Something about connections and laser-ionic toilets.

 

Huh. Guy must be going through his free soul phase again.

 

When Mark sneaks into the opening, he flattens against the wall and rolls behind a pile of stacked noir flo-crates. Murmurs wash in and out around him as more people gather in. Mostly in the dark, no one notices him.

 

Feels the surface, pausing when his fingers brush against a jagged edge. Slips a hand in. Tugs out a slip of fabric recognizes the carbon-synth skin immediately. Delicate. Almost warm. Another face merger…?

 

Smooths it over his face. Alright. He should be safe now. Catches his reflection in the flo-crate panel. His breath catches, though he doesn't recognize the face. What a stunner.

 

When he slips from his hiding place, and glides his way to the bar, he feels their eyes all over him. They shrink away, giving him space. Resting his elbows against the dark marbled counter, Mark watches the scene.

 

“Wow. Didn’t think I’d run into you here.

 

He turns. Blinks. “-sorry?”

 

The guy facing him looks familiar somehow. Sounds familiar too. Then Mark realizes it’s the guy that'd been asleep when he snuck into the room.

 

“Aren’t you under some sort of house arrest?”

 

Mark snorts. “-not that I know of. I’m actually, like, kinda on the run, you know?”

 

“Well, no shit you would be.” The guy sits down, still quietly glaring at him. “-no doubt cops're after you now. But really here of all places? You weren’t secretly trying to run into me, were you?”

 

“Run into you?” Bites his lip when he hears his voice squeak at the end. “-look, man, I don’t even know you, so how’s that s’pposed to work, like, you tell me

 

“-What kind of stuff are you on...?” He laughs, squinting. “-I’ve never seen you this nervous in your life you sound like some nineteen year old college kid who’s never even breathed alcohol…”

 

The poor blonde looks at him beyond confused.

 

“And what’re you, huh?” Mark snapped back. “-you just go around like, I dunno, vaping whiskey on the daily, is that it? Y’know, for the record, hard liquor tastes like shit. Go snort tequila in the bathroom or something.”

 

At this point, Johnny’s close to tears from how embarrassing this is. Go snort tequila — that’s what he was gonna say next time he caught Lucas swinging down in the middle of night to raid his fridge. Whatever the hell this guy was having he needed to get himself some too it was some good shit.

 

“Okay, whatever. Pretend like you don’t know me.” Johnny sits back down. “-we can do it like that.” Shrugs, chuckling. “-so that means you really moved on this time, huh? Sheesh, never thought I’d see the day.”

 

“So you know me?” Shit. Where had this guy seen him before? Did he know about the Unregulated Zone too? Would he rat them out? “-when did we meet?”

 

“-A long time ago.” Johnny glances at the rows of jeweled bottles at the back of the bar. “-we met before I had the operation, so I can’t really fill you in on much. I don’t remember anything before that point. Actually, you tell me most of the story, usually…”

 

“Yeah?” Then Mark realizes he’s still wearing the face merger. Feels guilty now. “-look, hey, I’m sorry you’re probably mistaking me for someone else.”

 

“Oh, yeah?” Leans in closer. “-and who would that be…?”

 

“The guy you’re staring at.”

 

Grins. “-that’s not funny.”

 

“I’m serious. I’m not kidding.”

 

“Cut the bullshit.” Shakes his head, drawing back. “-you’re not even that good today.”

 

Mark sighed, stressed. What had he gotten himself into he'd just wanted to have a little fun, and now the whole thing had turned into something entirely different and complicated. Is this a sign that maybe I shouldn't be goin' around swipin' shit?  God, this world didn't have a single funny bone in it's body...

 

“O-Okay, look I’ll, I’ll show you a magic trick, hold on…” Grips the edges of the face merger, sucking in a breath. Internally clutching his now frozen piece of watermelon for moral support. “-okay, three...two... one—

 

Johnny nearly falls off his seat.

 

He freezes, blinking. Parts his lips, but no sound comes out. For a while, he just stares at him, silent.

 

“Uh, are you okay…?”

 

“You’re...you’re...wh…” Johnny stammers. “-h-hold on, wait…” Shifts his gaze to the face merger now lying on the bar counter. It looks like the most artificial thing ever, but just seconds before he’d thought it had been… Shit. So Yangyang really wasn’t kidding when he said that Yuta had… Shook his head. Yuta was a real daredevil, that’s for sure. Wait ‘til he meets the owner of that face. That’d wipe the smile clean off his own.

 

“How did you get this?” Eyes the wrinkled fabric. “-Yuta didn’t give this to you, did he?”

 

“Oh, no way actually, uh, I kinda took it, haha.” Shrugs, trying to laugh it off. “-someone ripped a hole in one of the boxes out front, so I just, you know…”

 

“Stole it.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

The guy just looked at him.

 

“Are you gonna keep it?”

 

“Sure, I guess.” Who knows, maybe it’ll come in handy sometime. “-what, d’you want it or something?”

 

Laugh-coughs. “-oh, no, I don’t wanna be anywhere near it, actually. You can take it but I’m just saying you probably don’t wanna walk around outside wearing that…”

 

“Why not? It’s not like he’s ugly or anything.”

 

“Have you seen the news? Do you know what he’s done?” Johnny leans in, exhaling in disbelief. “-you wear that outside, they’ll mob you. They’ll tear your skinny little arms apart.”

 

“And everybody knows about him.”

 

“It was all over the billboards last week how could anybody not know about it?” He pinches the bridge of his nose. “-the fact that you don’t know about him...Man, I really needa move to your part of town. Sounds like paradise, honestly.”

 

“-I dunno, I mean, I just don’t look at that flashy stuff.” Mark shrugs. “-all that shit looks fake to me it could just all be a buncha lies, right? Like have you ever considered that maybe he didn’t do it?” Whatever he did?

 

“In most cases, I’d agree with you. But I was in the room when it happened. Sure, the media sensationalizes the whole thing, but I know what he did.” Looks at him, feels bad for dumping all this over him unannounced.“-anyways, whatever, forget about it. You’re not him, it doesn’t matter.”

 

Pauses, studying his face. Squints. “-and who are you, anyway?”

 

Blinks, getting caught off-guard. Wasn't every day someone wanted to just plainly know his name. Most times people just saw him as some dumb, wayward kid only wanting to know his name to report him for something he did or didn't do. Finds himself nearly blushing a little now.

 

“Oh, uh, um, I’m Mark,” Smiles a bit awkwardly. "-hi."

 

“I’m Johnny,” Extends a hand. "-nice t

 

Mark crumples into giggles, clapping. “-ah, gabjagi that was so sudden —I’m Johnny...ahahahaha —jinja gabjagi…”

 

Laughs awkwardly, hand still extended. “-o-okay?” Tries it for himself. “-I’m Johnny.” Doesn’t really get it, but shrugs. “-okay, well, I mean, that is my name…”

 

“Nice to meet you, Johnny. I’m Mark.” Still laughing, shaking some hair out of his face.

 

“Yeah, I know.” Snorts. “-you just told me that…”

 

“Oh, ouaiiii, whoops. Sorry about that, ahahaha,”

 

“It’s okay, Mark,” Rolls his eyes. “-I’m Johnny.”

 

Pfffbvbbtt—

 

 

 

Chapter Text

After they finally stop laughing, Johnny suggests they play a game.

 

“Okay, so, we use shots for this.” Peers at him. “-you’re good at handling alcohol, right?”

 

“Yeah, sure, whatever,” Mark shrugs. Lies. He was gonna topple over after like four, tops.

 

“So there’s a famous drink here called the Regular,” Johnny’s gotta really shout the German electropop funk remix’s blaring so loud it feels like it’s coming from inside of him. “-I’m gonna order one for you right now and I want you to tell me how it tastes, okay?”

 

“Okay, sure, gotcha!” Yeah, haha, no sweat.

 

“Alright, cool.” Hollers at a young bartender cleaning glasses, roving laser-strobes of magenta and icy blue against his back. “-yo, Yangyang! I want the Regular.”

 

Turns around, face lighting up. “-ay, Johnny! You’re here!” Laughs. “-one Regular comin’ right up.”

 

Moments later, a neon green drink slides before them, served in a tall martini glass with an olive and salted rims. Mark blinks. It looks like a liquid booger.

 

“We’re not at shots yet because you need to try the original before we branch off in the game.” Nods with his chin. “-come on. Bottoms up.”

 

“O-okay,” Brings the glass to his lips, downing it all in one gulp.

 

Gags half a second later. Can’t even swallow it, just spits the whole thing all over the counter. Grabs a fistful of tissues and tries to wipe the taste out of his mouth. Johnny looks at him, clearly entertained, casually ignoring Yangyang’s face as the poor guy mops his handiwork into the cleaning pail.

 

“What the hell was that…?” Mark’s wiping tears from his eyes. “-tasted like a boiled sock…what’s in this thing…?!”

 

“Guess.” Chuckles.

 

“Um, I don’t know...maybe like, uh...mayonnaise…?”

 

Blows a snortled raspberry, shaking his head. “-honestly, you’re not too far off.” Dude was wayyy off. Leans in. “-it’s queso.”

 

“Q-queso…?” The blonde blinks. “-wh— they put queso in an alcoholic drink…?!”

 

“Uh huh.” Shrugs. “-all the regulars here love it for some reason. Anyways.” Sets his hands on the counter. “-now for the game.”

 

Mark has to lean in real close to hear him and Johnny notes, guy sure smells really nice. Some mixture of seashore, tangled weeds and earth. God, I haven’t seen a real beach since… “-so, we each take a shot of the Irregular version of the drink —it has no queso in it —instead it’s replaced by something else.”

 

“Okay? And?”

 

“And you gotta guess what the something else is. Simple, right?” Wants to ask him what he uses to wash his hair. It can’t be real they’ve got to have manufactured that scent in a lab, right?  

 

“And if you get it wrong?”

 

“You gotta take another shot. Don’t worry.” Chuckles. “-I won’t let ‘em poison you.” Also, I’m actually having a good time here, for once. Crap, what does a guy do to smell this good…? Hopes Mark doesn’t notice his eyes which keep going back to his hair. “-and all the replacers are regular stuff you’d mix drinks with —you don’t gotta worry about blended cow eyeballs or whatnot—

 

“-Yo, man, stop talking —I’m gonna dry-retch on your shirt if you keep going on about this, like, farm animal nonsense…” Mark pleaded, half-shuddering. Never wanted to go vegan so bad in my life…

 

“Okay, gotcha.” Turns to the bartender again. “-Yangyang, you think you could get us two of those—”

 

Yangyang snorts, leaning in towards Mark’s ear. “-yo, if you can get this guy to finally pay his tab next time he comes here, whole night’s on me, yeah?”

 

“He’s got a tab in this place?” Other guy sighs, at least half-sympathetic. “-it’s been a rough six months for ‘im, I guess. Just transfer after transfer, and no room really to take a break from things, y’know?”

 

“Right. Makes sense.” Wants to ask more about it, but doesn’t want to come off as rude. Glances over at the other guy. It’s better to wait for Johnny to tell it, for sure. “-okay, I think we’re ready, haha,”

 

“Coolio!” Sets two lime green shots before them. “-first round should be easy as wifi.”

 

Motions for them to stand up —easier to judge when they should stop. Dragging two drunk guys home on his megacycle was not how Yangyang wanted to spend his Tuesday night. And no doubt he’d have to drag them together —what, with the way Johnny kept stealing glances at the blonde, utterly dumbfounded. Jeez, is that the way you stare at someone when you’re dying to make out with them or…?

 

Johnny dunks first, blinking, chuckling. “-wow, this is hard,”

 

Mark goes right after, elbow knocking into the guy’s shoulder. “-alright, got it, one, two, three—

 

FANTA!

 

Oh, yoooo, what the —” Mark jumps up and down, smacking Johnny in arm, the other doing wavy arms. “-aw, yoooo, that was like…”

 

“Alright, second one, second one,” Yangyang calls, laughing.

 

They gulp down at the same time, slamming empty shots back onto the counter.

 

Johnny nods. “Oh, easy —hana, dul, set

 

Root Beer!”

 

Dr. Pepper! ” Mark blinks. “-OH MY GOD, yeah  —it is Root Beer!”

 

Sighs, downing another shot, shaking his head, eyes squeezed closed. Both of them angle in closer to each other, shoulders touching, Mark doing a not-so-unobvious glance down Johnny’s shirt neck.

 

“Alright, last one,” Yangyang’s glancing at his boss whose mouth sets in a firm line when he sees Johnny’s silhouette by the bar counter. Plus, these guys drink any more and things’re gonna get a whole lot less, uh… “-oi, Soo-Man-sunbaenim just saw you —he’s gonna kick my ass if I get you guys any more…”

 

Johnny snorts, chucking it down. Mark follows suit, feeling his throat burn. “-one, two, three—

 

Punch juice!”

 

Cherry coke...?”   Johnny’s face lights up, pumping his fist in the air. “ -ohhhhhhhhh —!”

 

Mark’s eyes widen, stunned he lost again. “-yoooo, I said that too, though...!” Jams in another shot, nearly spitting it back up again. Laughing when Johnny caves in, can’t hold in his guffaws, dabbing Mark’s chin, then his throat with a napkin. Why’s this guy so frickin’ adorable…

 

Wiping tears from his eyes, notices Mark’s legs starting to buckle a little. Steadies him with a hand on his elbow. “-hey, we should get out of here. How about we…” Laughs softly when the guy grips his arm with both hands, mumbling, face flushed. “-come on, I know a place.”

 

“So, how long has it been since you…?” Mark half-slurs when they’re back out in the hard, sharp night. Shivers, pressing closer —the streets have gotten chillier since he’d last been here. Glances up at the blazing chrome-streaked skies, wincing. 

 

“Huh, must be a least a few years now…” Johnny eyes the flashing lights, blurred motion in the technicolor lanes. His mind’s so mellowed out the noise renders to soft music. “-the days are kinda strange, you know? You find yourself living a lot of other people’s lives, so you sorta forget about your own...”

 

“Why’d you decide to do it?” Mark mumbles. His eyes look a little sad now. “-why’d you throw your life away like that?”

 

The other guy laughs. “-would it sound silly if I told you I can’t remember?” Shakes his head. “-I really can’t…” Sighs, turning to him. “-sometimes I wish I did...and sometimes I’m just about absolutely sure the reason is a whole lot stupider than what I initially thought it was.”

 

“Is it possible to, you know?” Mark shrugs, pressing a cold cheek against his shoulder. “-reverse the whole thing? Get your memories back?”

 

“Nn, from what I know, it’s not…” Eyes the holographic figures dancing above them. “-but who knows? Maybe it is. But what’s the point? What would I get back from it?”

 

“You're not serious, are you?” The blonde frowns. Grimaces from the jarbled shouts and shrieks —street vendors harking and flashing their wares. Eyes the hand-painted sign of a street noodle shop. Ramen Ichiban. Johnny nods and the two of them sit down on the poly-wooden bench worn smooth from rain and chrome-synth pants. Makes a two with his fingers, points his chin at tonight's special. “-you just lost, like, a whole chunk of your life and you’re wondering what the point is...? Doesn’t any of it matter to you?”

 

“It’s all much of the same, Mark, honestly.” Johnny shrugs, now with a mouthful of steaming noodles. “-you always end up giving away part of yourself to other people eventually. I just decided to do it early.”

 

Mark looks out into the streets. Lets his vision go soft, lets the lights just wash in and flare out. Doesn’t feel his legs for a second, but can tell they're still there. Sighs, closing his eyes, breathing in the rich smell of his spicy black bean seafood ramen. It tastes so real, I can’t believe it’s really just...

 

“Maybe you’re right. Doesn’t make sense to me.” Looks at some stray trash lying around the street curb, then back at the shrunken green onions and pretty pink fish cakes floating in his plastic bowl of orange soup. “-you so sound sure of the whole thing…”

 

“What’s it to you, then?” Johnny mutters, shoving his hands into his pockets, getting back up. “-you think—” Gets interrupted by a loud burp, flushing a little. “-you think your life’s that much better? Do you even know what you’re running from?”

 

“Oh, whatever —man, at least I know what I don’t want outta life...!” Mark sputters, grabbing the guy’s arm on instinct. Shouts when his heel gets caught in a cement gap. “-taking in other people’s shit day in and day out like some kind of…”

 

“-Shit, Mark, —at least I frickin’ contribute —” Barely spits it out —whole mouth still on fire from the noodles. Gotta run my tongue through the tap cold when I get back… “-this city fucking needs me, alright?”

 

“You really think so?” He laughs. “-you think they’ll care if you miss your digi-quota one week and that parasitic thing in your brain goes off like a fuckin’ bomb?” Shut up, shut up, shut up, Mark what the fuck are you doing…?!  “-you think you’re gonna get an actual grave —they’ll bury you in this city’s frickin’ foundation, for crying out loud.”

 

“You’re a real dick, you know that?” Almost wants to wrench him off his arm, but can’t bring himself to do that to this poor half-drunk kid. 

 

“I don’t know about that,” Mark shook his head. “-but I know what I ain’t —I ain’t no damn liar. I’m not gonna pretend like it’s all cool when it’s n...” Something small and dark zips past them, smashing into a windowpane, then sliding down. Hears it squeak, fidget. Blinks, squinting. “-s-something’s not right about this whole place.”

 

“And what’re you gonna do about it, huh?” Johnny doesn’t seem to have noticed it.  “-you think, what —shootin’ up the whole government’s gonna fix it all?” Why’s everyone here hurting so bad all the time? I shouldn’t have capped off on transfers so early this week it’s not normal for people to be this

 

Wh— …?!” Squints at him, shoves him away. Leans against the glass of a screenshop, trying to steady his breathing. Afterimages of that tiny, dark thing still burns neon behind his eyelids. 

 

Wobbles, struggling slightly when Johnny catches him again. “-uagh, jeez, I just think we need to wake up —like we need to break away from all this—

 

“You think I’ve never tried?” Johnny laughs. Exhales.

 

“-it’s the first thing some of us try to do…”

 

Shrugs his shoulders up, shielding his ears as hexacopters veer dangerously close to their heads. Glares up at the feds —tries to make some kind of face that would convince them Mark’s with him —lands on gripping his waist protectively until the hexes tilt back up.

 

“-not all of us got into this crap voluntarily.” The taller guy mutters after the skies quiet down. He’s not mad anymore, he wasn’t really mad to begin with, but now the alcohol just makes things feel numb. “-I think it was really bad for Haechan in the beginning..." Recalling it makes him quiet. "-you know him?”

 

"Yeah." Focuses on the ground, quiet too. Presses closer in from the cold, shrinking his hands into his sleeves. “-yeah, I know him. He’s a handful, but he’s alright.”

 

Mark cracks a half-smile. Stumbles, letting Johnny take most of his weight for a time.  “-seeing what it’s done to him —that’s what makes me so against this whole thing. God...” Squeezing his eyes closed, wincing. “-I don’t know how to describe it, but something happened. When I look at him, it’s like he’s not there.”

 

They try to let the traffic talk for a while.

 

“Shit.” Shakes his head, still going ahead. “-fucking shit…”

 

“Yeah.” Mark looks behind them. He can’t tell where they are right now. Just somewhere in this city, in this mess of tiny squares and lights and senseless colour. Almost something like lost. And strange. Something strange seems to have slipped under his skin. “-fucking shit is right.”

 

...

 

By the time Hendery's wondering when Mark'll get back, it's nearly 1 am. His hexa-phone's charging by the bedside deskpod. He’s made himself a mug of digi-tea, with extra milk chips from stuff he scrimmaged from the kitchen. Looks out the window. Night's same as ever. Vibrant motion-sensor landscapes scattering over the black mirror screenwalls.  

 

Hendery doesn’t like spending too much time by himself. It gets his mind running around and sometimes he doesn’t like where he ends up.

 

He’s worried about Mark. No, not in that — Where the heck is that idiot right now kind of worried —Mark’s resourceful, practically self-sufficient. Heck, even if he were 100% human, he’d still be the same. Never relied on anyone —did it all by himself.

 

Mark’s gotten so good at stealing, they’re starting to run out of places to store his digi-loot. They’ll never run out of bytes at this point —Mark sells the good shit, keeps what's better. He’s got a good eye —can see what’s gonna be worth a lot on the market —if not today, then tomorrow —if not tomorrow, two weeks from now. Always seems to know what’s trending.

 

Hendery’s still thinking about this as he pulls out the nanoPad Mark jacked last month, from that tech store down the street —Bits and Bytes. Urged the other guy to go flirt with the store clerk —I can tell he likes guys —more than that —I can tell he likes you. Go on —get his number —he’s kinda hot, anyways. So as Hendery’s knee deep in a convo on mod. dance, and really honestly kinda digging the blonde streaks the clerk’s got in his hair, pushed back in a sleek red headband —Oh, what a rebel —but shit, I’m kinda into that, Mark sneaks past them, slips the Pad out of its plexiplastic casing and books the fuck outta there.

 

Yeah, the alarms rang off and the manager tore the shit out of all the employees —including the poor clerk, but Blonde Streaks knew how to work the scene and in a matter of minutes, got the manager drooling over a giant sale he just made from that LED maja-projector they’ve been trying to sell for weeks. That baby costs twelve times as much as that dumb Pad. Yeah, Moon Taeil’s loaded, but he’s like, the sweetest guy ever. Someone snuck in a security camera into his house again and turns out he just bought more play-furniture for his cats. They’re all adopted. I know. I’ll never get a guy like him —it’s like I’m dreaming a dream in a dream.

 

So the clerk did give Hendery his number. When he asked about why his name got cut off on his work tag, guy rolls his eyes —real name’s too fucking long —nobody bothers to remember —or even try to pronounce... I go by a nickname —see I typed it here with my number, honey. Haha, get it?

 

Eleven, was it? No. Ten. It was Ten.

 

So Hendery tries to call Ten, but it goes to a weirdass voicemail —Hey, babe —if you know who you are, I still wanna have xxxx with you, love you forever darling. Laters. Ugh, I wanna smack myself, nghhargh…

 

Last time he and Ten had chatted, which was also the first time they chatted, Ten hadn’t said anything about what an xxxx was. Who was this mystery man? Or woman, or android, or human-android hybrid, he wouldn’t judge. People had their ways of getting around.

 

So instead, Hendery goes to Mpthyz —a live chat messaging app, and searches for a name he hasn’t seen in a while. He’s changed his moniker to half_sun99. When Hendery sees he’s online, he lets out a sigh of relief and clicks to connect.

 

Most of the screen stays dark. After a while, he sees parts of a face, badly lit from a phone light —a freckle on the right side of the nose. Another one a bit under his eye. Jeez, it looks like he’s lost weight again.

 

“Hey, Henry —what’s goin’ on?”

 

Snorts —the guy botched his name first time they met and now they’ve agreed on Henry. It was safer, he noted. Half_sun99 wasn’t supposed to be communicating with the outside right now, but man, the kid sure gets bored easily.

 

“Mark’s out again.” Sighs. “-have no idea when he’s comin’ back but said he’s going to some hip club —Das something or other… I don’t know —I’m kinda worried right now, I guess?”

 

“What, about him?” Laughs. “-he’ll be fine, he acts like a big baby sometimes, but he can handle himself.”

 

“Yeah, I know. No, I mean,” He shook his head. “-I don’t know if he’s even really friends with me sometimes...Like, I think he only likes me because I got you outta tough shit, but like, I wish he’d just open up a bit more.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Yeah, like I don’t know anything about his family —albeit his adopted one, since he’s, like, you know —but heck, sometimes he’ll just run out on me and I just wonder, like, did I do something wrong? Did I screw up somewhere? Like we go around fucking shit up, but it’s mostly me going along with his ideas because I got backup, like major backup, so I can get us out of the shit,”

 

“Okay, and so?” Picks dandruff off his hair, flicks it behind him. Screen freezes for a second, returns back to normal.

 

So —I ran into Moon Taeil on the elevator today —ugh, long story, I’ll explain later, Mark’s shit again, anyways so I ran into him, right?”

 

“Uh huh,”

 

“Dude hands me a frickin’ key to this room 1127 —the place I’m staying at right now. I’m wearing a face merger with his face on it —Moon tells me I’m ‘earlier’ than he expected, whatever the fuck that means—

 

“-So you want me to—

 

“-Seriously, dude, if you have time —run a PSC on him, and check in with Yuta and that other kid he was hanging with in the store —Yangyang, I think? I feel like I saw him somewhere else before too, dude’s got a sweet megacycle —doesn’t look like he can afford it, no offence.”

 

“-So Mark’s hanging around these shady dicks and you think you guys got thrown in a loop with big names like Moon Taeil?”

 

“-Wish it weren’t true, but yeah…”

 

Donghyuck bursts out laughing, quieting down when he hears rustling and muffled crying in the other room. “-jeez, Henry, just chill —sounds like you guys are finally getting caught up in some fun for once...! Man, when I get out for good —first thing I’m doing is saying fuck that to this Carrier shit.”

 

“Yeah? You can reverse it?”

 

Pssh, probably yeah —obvi illegal, but when've I ever given a shit about that?” Shakes his head. “-fullsun’s comin’ back in town, these mofos better get ready.”

 

“Are you at least eating okay?” You look kinda...

 

“Caught a weird stomach bug couple days ago, so I’m not eating much, but yeah, food’s decent. Quit worrying about me —man, I’ll be back to kick your ass sooner than you know it.”

 

Laughs. “What about Mark’s ass?”

 

“Oh, jeez. I’ll kick him from the moon and back. Dude’s way too serious sometimes, he’s gotta let loose —hey, three of us should go someplace when this whole shit’s blown over.”

 

“Yeah? You know any hotspots?”

 

“The underground's way lit, yo. We gotta check it it’s mad city twenty-four hours down there. Plus, they’ve got info I’m itching to squeeze.” Looks over his shoulder. “-aight, gotta phase out, some dude’s getting his shit fucked up again, I’ll see you later?”

 

“‘Kay.” He sighed, switching off too. “-laters.”

 

So Donghyuck's out, but he technically isn't out out. He'd only broke him through the first firewall cops got to him easy just barely two weeks later. Mark's got no idea. He thinks Hyuck's fine which is what the guy wants him to believe. It's not that bad, for real —this place's a damn beach compared that other shithole. Anyways, don't snitch to Mark —give me time, think I can tease out some sweet hacks while I'm stuck here, anyways.

 

Look, maybe I can start shit. They've got no idea.

 

Neither did he. Dunno why Hyuck's kept contact with him, even though Mark's the closer tie. Known him since middle school had all the right fights so they were tight as hell now. Not tight enough to tell him where he really is though…

 

God, he needed some real friends. Couldn't shake off the idea that guys just hung around him for connections. So I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a… You get the picture. Shit, one of these days he's gonna shed all these fancy clothes, slip on a regular face merger and get on the tube. Ride it to the end of the line and just gaze into the bottomless abyss that was

 

Oh, shit! 

 

Did Ten just send him a text?

 

...

 

When they reach Johnny’s apartment, Mark’s quiet. Asks if he can stay for the night. He’s really sweet about it, so the other can’t deny him. He’s got space anyways. There’s room —there seems to be so much more room now that the sun’s down.

 

Picks out his way in the darkened living room. Gestures towards the couch in the corner. But Mark shakes his head, staying against his arm.

 

“Uhnughh…” Protests quietly, face smushing into his shirt. “-goddamn popo are still after my ass...can’t I stay with you…?” Won’t tell him the real reason why he’s scared. It's stupid. He'd never take him seriously. Snorts softly. “-promise I won’t snore.”

 

“Snoring doesn’t bother me.” Johnny sighs, gently dragging the blonde sleepyhead towards his room. “-no drooling though, okay?” Half-kidding.

 

Mark’s giggling again, body going slack when his knees hit the mattress. Mumbles into the sheets. “-hahaha, got it.”

 

Doesn’t fall asleep until he’s sure he can hear the sound of Johnny’s breathing right next to him. Shifted in closer anyways.

 

...

 

Johnny feels something nudging his shoulder. Blinks, mumbling. Squints at him. “-yeah?”

 

“Nn...um, hey, sorry for all that...” Wipes some crusts out of his eyes. Feels better almost. His brain’s almost stopped buzzing. “-I say a bunch of stupid shit when I'm drunk —seriously don’t take any of it personally, okay?”

 

“Sure. Yeah,” He mumbles. Shit, I’m sorry too, honestly.  Sunlight casts soft red shafts over the walls.   “-it’s okay, Mark. You don’t need to apologize for everything.”

 

“Sorry.” Snorts when Johnny does a sleepy roll of his eyes. “-habit.”

 

Laughs. “You’re such a dork, jeez.”

 

He’s almost forgotten how nice it is to not wake up alone.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Seconds after Haechan switches off, they’re calling him in again. I’m coming, I’m coming —jeez… he relays in his invisicom, throwing on a laser-proof poly-synth jumper, matching track pants. Shoves his nanoPad mini inside a tear along his mattress. Drags and tucks in the sheets. Huffs. Bed’s a fucking mess, what can you expect in a place like this?

 

Ducks his head to let the screen scan his eye. Lee Donghyuck: Carrier 0002 —Clear. Hears the grinding click, twists the metal door open, jogging out into the hall. Heels slapping against the dirty white floor, he halts at the fourth door down the left. Peers through the window. Glass so heavily frosted up, all he can make out are ragged blobs.

 

Exhales, nails digging into his palms. It’s not gonna be that bad. It’s not gonna be that bad. Can’t be like last time. You’re gonna be fine. Pushes through the door, eyes glued to the ground.

 

He knows not to look immediately up this time. You need time to adjust. Time to process it all.

 

The stench of urine overwhelms his nose before he even sees the blood. His eyes move along the dark smudged trail, thin at some parts, thick and clumpy at others, until he sees the bare, bruised feet it ends at.

 

God, at least all the toenails are still there this time.

 

Makes his way towards the inmate, kneels down before them. Rests his hands over their cold, sweaty ones, trying to stop the trembling. Breathes thin. Can’t look at the eyes, not yet.

 

“Hey.” He says softly. “-hey, it’s gonna be okay.”

 

All he hears is hoarse sobbing.

 

“I know you’re scared right now. It’s okay.” Tries to add a quiet chuckle at the end. Comes out a little too forced. Eyes the fabric of their chrome synth-pants. “-when it was my first time, I was scared too.”

 

Now that he’s closer, he recognizes another smell. Sharp, acidic at first, then dulling to a soft sweetness like marshmallows. Sangdurine —SDR, for short. They injected you with it if they needed your data fast. Made your body rewire itself —you started sweating blood instead of water.

 

Donghyuck looks down at his hands, notices the edges staining in pinking red. Fuck, he needed to think fast. Guy was gonna die in under ten hours otherwise.

 

“Hey. Hey —listen to me.” He pleaded. “-whatever you’re hiding, you need to tell them —now.”

 

He doesn’t turn around to see what’s on the screen behind him.

 

It doesn’t hurt —it feels like you’re sweating normally. It’s all internal. Your brain sees red, sends pain signals as nerve stressors. You start to feel cold all over. Coldness intensifies the signals. Your brain begins to lose oxygen under the stress.

 

“Close your eyes. Yeah, shut them, just like that.” Concentrates on the hands, pressing down hard, even though he knows it can’t stop the bleeding. “-it hurts less if you can’t see it. Breathe. Come on, in. Out. Breathe, come on, stay with me. Good. You’re doing good.”

 

He feels the hands steadying a little, hears the breathing trying to slow down. Even out. “-now I need you to try to remember what happened. The more details, the better. You’ll get a quicker, cleaner extraction.”

 

Then Donghyuck repeats the verse someone told him when he underwent extraction for the first time. All Carriers remember this. It’s the only memory of pre-operation that stays with them.

 

“Remember, you’re not here. You’re dreaming. You have always been dreaming.” Holds his hands tighter. “-to an unknown place, an unknown hall. You’re not alone.”

 

He hears the breathing go silent.

 

“Now open your eyes.”

 

The hands go limp.

 

He doesn’t remember his face. Sometime later, Donghyuck finds himself in the hall again, leaning against the wall by his cell door. He has a couple minutes before he has to go back inside.

 

Involuntary extraction hurts like a bitch. It’s supposed to. The first time, they do it as a warning. They take something from you that you like, but don’t necessarily need.

 

Your eighth birthday party. Coming home after getting caught in the rain. Running your hands through the wind chimes at the front of your aunt’s house.

 

You feel this tiny gap in your brain afterwards. It makes you think funny. It makes you feel like you’re never entirely awake. A slightly sticky numbness like leaf buds unfurling.

 

It’s more bearable that way. Here.

 

Sometimes it’s better to feel uncertain if it’s all real.

 

There are two kinds of extraction. Donghyuck remembers the white masks telling him this days before the first operation. He laid in a soundproof room with no windows. His eyes were closed. Their voice data transmitted internally.

 

You needed the first kind of extraction at least once a year after becoming a Carrier. After your internal hard drive became full, they needed to extract the data out. Get you fitted with a new drive, most times. Extraction was often violent. Your old one would get damaged.

 

So Johnny Seo was a bit of an urban legend around here. He always filled his quota earlier than everyone else. Had to get a new drive at least four times a year.

 

His pain tolerance was incredible. Just went straight in, day in and day out.

 

People used to make jokes about it. Maybe it wasn’t so much that he tolerated the pain. Maybe he felt connected that way. Maybe it kept him from going under.

 

Donghyuck never listened to that bullshit. Hoped Johnny didn’t either. The world they lived in wasn’t fair.

 

What about the second kind of extraction? If you were lucky, you would never get it. People will go around telling you you get the first kind in the hospital, the second kind in prison. They’re not entirely wrong.

 

Type 2 extraction is like an extension of the involuntary kind. This time, they take something from you that is vital.

 

They call it a rooted anchor. When they take that single memory from you, each one connected to it starts fading away. The anchor unearths threads from under the sand. It starts eating off your subconscious.

 

First, they show you something. You’ll watch the screen before you brighten. An object glows into existence. It triggers the memory.

 

You lose the time your mother sat in that lawn chair at the back of your house and told you she still remembers the first time you got a fever. You cried all night. She got no sleep. When you finally did stop crying, you fell asleep first. She fell asleep later, in a plastic chair in the hospital room.

 

When you have a memory within a memory, this is where the trouble starts. You don’t know what will disappear first. Will your mother go first? Will you?

 

It doesn’t matter that you don’t remember that memory your mother does. It triggers your brain to find all the memories your mother has ever told you. At one point, both of you will remember a particular one.

 

Then the origin will begin. This is the point in time when you will start losing your memory.

 

Maybe it will be your eighth birthday. Maybe it will be coming home from the rain one day.  Maybe it’s your hand running through the wind chimes at your aunt’s house.

 

Yes. Involuntary extraction was type 2 all along.

 

See, the thing is, it doesn’t matter how small the gap is. All your memories are vital. Once you lose one piece, it’s not long before the next one follows.

 

Donghyuck has evaded type 2 extraction for seven months now. He assists the extractors during the operations. Keeps inmates from going into shock and dying. He doesn’t know how much they take away, he doesn’t know what they take away.

 

He also doesn’t know what they put back inside.

 

That’s the fun part. They told him to think of it like an airplane. It goes both ways.

 

Where do you think the extracted memories from Carriers go?

 

Without a hard drive internally installed, the traumatic memory goes straight into your own neural system. It becomes yours.

 

All the inmates here will become Hosts. They carry all the pain in the city. As the rest of us sleep on in drug-induced happy dreams.

 

The alarm buzzed hard and Donghyuck slips back inside his cell. Goes over to his bed again, unclips a tiny metal square from behind his ear. Inserts it in a compartment in his nanoPad mini.

 

All the information he’s just relayed has downloaded inside this square drive. He’ll share it with the waking world someday.

 

There’s more to come. This is only the beginning.

 

...

 

After Johnny leaves in the morning, Mark has some time to himself. Sits with his chin on his knees tucked up on a kitchen chair. Soon as he’s sure it’s safe, clicks open his shoulder compartment. Hopes that today there won't be any drilling so he can concentrate on this. So far, so good... Pinches the memory chip between his fingers. Dang, is this even gonna work? It was like all caked up in barbeque sauce and shit yesterday, jeez…

 

Runs his index finger along his temple, finds the reader slot. Slips in the chip. Closes his eyes.

 

Darkness behind his lids brightens to an icy green. Like something out of Paranormal Activity. Slowly, Mark makes out a bright, staticky rectangle of light, somewhat off-centre. Fuzzy wrinkles of shadow appear along the far edge of the rectangle. A bed? But I can’t tell if it’s the bedroom here or... A dimmer shape rises from the edge —then Mark recognizes the outline of arms, shoulders, a head.

 

He watches as the shoulders cave in, hands blacking out the face. Can’t tell if the body is trembling or if it’s the grainy footage. For several minutes, the figure stays in this position. Is he crying, or screaming or something…? Mark can’t tell —the recording runs silent.

 

Then he notices the dull outlines of more wrinkled shadows underneath the covers. Twisting their body to the side, Mark watches the figure drag out a dark mass out from the brightness. Everything goes blurry for a few seconds, then the focus zooms into the mass.

 

Discerns smaller, thinner segments connected to a larger centre part. By the time Mark realizes it’s a body, he can see the figure reaching further down the bed, disappearing from the frame.

 

Jangling and rattling at the front door jolts Mark from the scene. As he glimpses a second body getting dragged out from the sheets, the chip pops out his temple slot and hits the floor, skittering down under the fridge.

 

Grimaces, craning his head against the tiles, trying to see where the damn thing went. Footsteps clapping into the kitchen makes Mark yank open the fridge, pretending to look for something to eat.

 

“G-good evening, Mr. Johnny…!” He stammers, as the guy bends at the sink to wash his hands.

 

“Oh, I don’t believe it’s evening,” Peels off his bloodied shirt, tossing it onto a chair. Leans down to dip his shoulders and throat under the running water. Looks over at him, chuckling. “-off to a bad start, Mark.”

 

“Haha, um, morning, then, I guess.” Smiles nervously, digging for anything to distract him at this point. Breathes in the cold, milky fridge smell, sighing.

 

“What’re you looking for?” Calls from above over the running tap.

 

“Uh, you got anything for, like, breakfast?” Mark could smell the sweat coming off of Johnny’s grey cargo pants, steals a quick peek at him. A line of dried blood snaked from his left rib to lower back. Almost reaches a hand to scratch it off. Flushes.

 

Turns to wrestle a bunch of packages and containers around to hide the watermelon he’d stuffed inside earlier. “-like cereal or oatmeal or whatever?”

 

“What, you want me to make you something?”

 

“Like can you cook?”

 

Squirms when drops of water from the guy’s hair lands on his arm.

 

“I’m pretty bad to be honest,” Johnny laughs. “-I make a pretty mean omelette, though,”

 

“Oh, great! I love eggs, hahaha...” Wipes his arm on his pants.

 

“Cool, pass me like, six,” Screws off the tap, exhaling, head down. Gestures with a weary hand. “-third shelf, behind the hexa-quinoa bean salad —grey carton —yeah, that’s the one.”

 

Mark hums, setting each one the counter by the rice cooker, making sure they don’t roll off.

 

“Could you crack those for me, actually?” Glances over, sees Johnny’s rummaging through the cupboards above the sink, tossing down some spice packs by the stove. “-I’m trying to remember that recipe I wrote down last week —apparently, it was Mom’s old one from way back…”

 

“Oh, yeah, sure, no problemo…” Grabs a fibre-tin bowl from a different cupboard —Yeah, Mark Lee, no sweat just forget about the two probably-most-likely dead bodies you just saw no way it was even the same bedroom, right? Hahahaha…

 

Fuck, I’m so screwed.

 

“Uh, actually, um, uh, I…” Looks down at the egg in his hands, blinking.

 

“What, you can’t crack eggs?”

 

“Well, uh, d’I mean, I can, but like, you would probably most likely actually prefer if I didn’t… ” 

 

Wait, nah, it's cool —I'm an android. Homeboy can't smite my ass even if he wanted to...

 

“So what, you want me to crack them for you?” Johnny chuckles, dabbing the water at his chest. Mark sneaks a glance and swallows —guy's as built as his loose chrome-synth sweater hinted at last night. Darts his eyes up, pretending to study the ceiling when spasms of drilling start again. “-oh, wow, so instead of ‘My boyfriend does my makeup’ —it’s ‘My boyfriend does my eggs’ —tch, incredible…”

 

“Well, uh, actually, I’m not exactly…” 

 

“I’m kidding, Jesus,” Rolls his eyes, seeing the other turn red. “-I make a lot of these kinda jokes, so you’re gonna have to get used to it, yo,” Hovers behind Mark, arms pressing over his, grasping the egg. Yawns. “-okay, kinda awkward but like, let’s crack them together then —God, shit, this is kinda funny…”

 

Finds himself getting more flustered —guy still didn’t throw a shirt on —Maybe he’s super exhausted or something man, I can feel like, his whole ass stomach pressing into my back and it’s kinda...Focus, Mark, focus

 

“Aw, shit—” Shards of egg shell get into the bowl. Other guy squints down at him. “-okay, but why would you stick your finger into the frickin’ egg, like I don’t underst—

 

“-Yo, it wasn’t just my finger —look,” Mark shot back. “-your finger went in too—

 

We’re both holding the egg —if yours goes in, so does mine…”

 

“-Well, shit, maybe you shoulda stopped my finger from goin’ in, with, like, your fin

 

“-Just pick the pieces out of the egg juice, Mark…”

 

“Just pick the pieces out of the egg juice, Mark,” He parroted, wagging his head. “-oh, eww, did you just call it egg juice

 

“Holy moly, it’s not even noon and you can’t let me live with egg juice —you gave us egg finger, man —get your priorities str…”

 

By the time all six eggs are cracked (and all the shards are picked out), Johnny’s watching the golden yellow island slowly settle into a lopsided circle in the pan. Grabs the back of Mark’s shirt as the guy tries to leave. “-woah, hey, where you think you’re going?”

 

“Okay, like it takes one person to fry eggs, yo,” 

 

Also, uh, when you plan on puttin’ on a shirt…? Like, just wondering.

 

“-Nah, dude —you gotta make up for that horrible egg cracking…” Thinks for a moment, then chuckles. “-’kay, show me one of your weird talents,”

 

“Yo, man, I don’t got any weird talents,” And here I am hanging out with a guy who just came back covered in blood —man, I really need to reevaluate my life choices...

 

“Everybody’s got weird talents —okay, like, for example —I’m really good at uh, imitating parrot noises—

 

What —? Yo…” Laughs, half-impressed. Just hide that memory chip thing from him and you’ll be fine… “-okay, uh, I can like, sort of freestyle, I guess,”

 

“Alright, go on —go for it,” Nods, chin gesturing at the sizzling eggs. “-yo, freestyle until these things’re done.”

 

“Aight, gimme a beat, yo,”

 

“Uh, um, okay —” Spits the most basic beat, ignoring Mark’s snorting and judging stare.

 

“Aight, uh, uh huh —yo, check it, yuh, mm, get ready, skrrt skrrt

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Okay, ay, ay, ay, —let’s geddit —yo, Mark Lee in the city —time to rap about some eggs, yuh,”

 

“Uh!”

 

“Got a lotta people tryna scramble up my dreams, yuh,”

 

“Woo!”

 

“Whiskin’ trouble in the streets, sunny side up on my beats, uh,”

 

“Uh huh!”

 

“You think you got some heat —watch me whip the ham and cheese, uh,”

 

“Say what?”

 

“Fold it, flip it, add some garnish —now you got some eats, uh,”

 

“Ohh!”

 

“Omelette look so good, they poachin’ right in frontta me, uh,”

 

“Yikes!”

 

“They yolk is runny, sides’re funny, all they edges fried, uh,”

 

“Woah,”

 

“Yeah, I flip it over easy, with some toast, the bread is rye, uh,”

 

“Ooh!”

 

“When life be lookin’ hard-boiled, haters shellin’ shade, ay,”

 

“Swerve,”

 

“Deviled up, I level up —ay —eggs’re fully made, yeah,”

 

“Ayyyyy!” Johnny laughs, switching off the stove. Claps his spatula along the edge of the pan, freeing the edges of the omelette with the tip. Looks over at Mark, snorting. “-yo, I saw that —tryna rhyme eggs with dreams in the beginning, dude, wh—

 

“Okay, yo, but like—

 

“Bruh, it doesn’t even slant rhyme—

 

“Okay, like, this is a freestyle —like yo, I don’t even—

 

“-I’m kidding, Mark,” Plates it up, the fluffy yellow edges spilling slightly over as he folds it. Slices the omelette in half, wigging the spatula underneath one semi-circle. Slides it into a second plate.

 

“Yo, so you ever thought about it,” Johnny munches on a mouthful of digi-egg, tomato and mushroom, sitting across from him at the table. “-like, trying out for competitions and stuff?”

 

“Nn, I dunno,” Mark looks to the side, stabbing his fork into a piece. “-seems like a lotta stress —you know, if I made it, like actually,”

 

Shrugs. “-never hurts to try,” Raises his brow. “-plus, think about how great it would be to have like, millions of fans and like—

 

“-You know, it’s kinda funny…” Mark furrows his brow. “-like, okay, I know it sounds crazy, but like, sometimes I have dreams —like I actually have dreams that it actually happened.”

 

“Like becoming a world famous rapper and stuff.”

 

“Yeah, stuff like that…” Sighs. “-like I dunno how to describe it, but it feels so real sometimes? Like sometimes I feel like it can’t really be just a dream —like maybe there’s some other Mark Lee out there —ya know, in another universe —doing his thing…”

 

“Out there, on the big stage —all those flashing lights with the crowd screaming and singing along.”

 

“You feel me?” Chuckles, shaking his head. Scrunches his nose at the drilling wheedling in again. “-that’s the dream —that’s the frickin dream, man. But you know, I wasn’t alone —like hey, in my dream last night —swear to God, you were there too…!”

 

Johnny bursts out laughing. “-you’re shitting me. No way —that’s sick, dude. Damn, what a dream, huh?”

 

Mark shifts around the last of his eggs with his fork, chin in his palm, half-smiling.

 

“So what d’you dream about?”

 

“Oh, trust me,” Waves it off. Looks down. “-you’ll lose your appetite. You don’t wanna know.”

 

...

 

“So,” Mark tries to be chill about it. “-do you, like, never get cold?”

 

“Oh, yeah,” Johnny looks down, laughing again. “-sorry, I should really put on a...”

 

“No, I mean like,” Chin points at his bare torso. “-you’re confident, bro, I get it—

 

“-Nah, it’s not like that, jeez—

 

“-Oh, it’s so hot in here —damn radiator must’ve broken again…”

 

“Aw, shut up, Mark…!” Tosses a wet dishcloth at him. Snorts when the cloth flies back, and slaps him in the chest. “-yo, cover up, John Wick —I can see your nipples…”

 

...

 

“Anyways, so who’re you really?” Johnny sits back facing him as Mark dabs on some cream over the burn scars. It’s odd. The glitches aren’t supposed to last this long. This is the first time the transfer has left physical marks. It’s fine, really. It doesn’t hurt most of the time. Sometimes it just comes out of nowhere. Cold baths help, I guess. At least the drilling's stopped for now...

 

“Oh, I ain’t nobody,” Mark laughs. “-you should know my mom, though.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Yeah. I mean, I dunno if you know this, yo,” Smooths on a second layer of lotion. “-but like, my mom sorta began the uh, sticky rice market?”

 

“Ohh, shit, huh.”

 

“I mean, like, she just started experimenting with like, mangoes and like rice and like, coconuts, uh,” Shrugs, draws a lopsided heart over one shoulder, smushes it out. “-with mango —and like, she always knew that I liked mangoes, so…”

 

“-My dad —my dad knew I liked beans,” Johnny twists his head, looking over at him. “-so like, he was just playing with beans —he dropped it —and then he dropped a rock—

 

Mark grins, can’t help snickering a bit. “-and then it slid —and then hot water started falling —and then coffee.

 

Gasps, before blinking, fingers pinched. “-oh, black beans —I thought you meant, like, green beans…” Squints. “-oh, wait, wait, wait —what did the rock do? Like it made it into powder?”

 

“It made it into powder—made it into powder—and like,” Turns completely around, eyes wide, brows flared. Mimics with his hands. “-hot water came outta nowhere.”

 

Flicks Johnny in the neck, and tries to stick lotion in his ear, laughing his ass off.

 

...

 

“Come on —the view up here is fucking amazing,”

 

Hendery laughs, scaling the side of the radio tower after Ten. Presses his body tight against the screenwall, inching towards the plexi-iron footholds along the narrow east side. Swings himself over the last of the bars, landing in a puddle of dirty rainwater.

 

“Ah, shit—

 

Snorts. Smacking at the wet spots of his pants, although it’s pointless. “-pssh. Dumbass,”  

 

“How’s I s’pposed to know there was a miniature ocean right over th—

 

“-Jeez, you wanna wear my pants instead?” Starts unzipping his fly, fiddling with the waistband. “-‘kay hopefully we’re the same size —I mean, you look pretty small—

 

“-Yo, yo, yo, no —stop, it’s okay, it’s okay,” Scoffs, half-entertained. “-keep your pants on, Ten,”

 

“-Whatever. So,” Gestures to the endless web of lights below them. “-how’s this place for sore eyes?”

 

Hendery looks out into the night. Way up here, they could see everything. Scattered and crowded about the cityscape like giant playing cards, billboards glittered and flashed with huge, grinning faces —a Japanese woman bites into a chocolate truffle, stretching a crimson smile on her glowing face. Hyundai and Suzuki commercials drift across wide screens, pixelated letters going in and out of view like angelfish as thundering hexacopters swerved by. Further down, someone forgot to pack up their paper lanterns and the brightly coloured spheres floated along the gutter, heading for the sewer grate. 

 

Way up here, all the voices below became a distant, rumbling hum. It’s the only NEO-Symphony in the world, Hendery thinks, with all the screams and whispers and groans of javacars, megacycles, gigabuses and hoverblades... All those wheels and gears and wires fiberized together in the dreamy pool of technology. Beyond this technicolor vision however, he sees ominous clouds looming in the distance.

 

“Rain never really comes here, doesn’t it,” He murmurs, more to himself.

 

“No.” Ten curls the side of his mouth. “-it’s all filtered —there’s tiny holes wayyy up there —you can see the rays falling through them right around dawn.” Shrugs. “-kinda like reverse constellations.”

 

“Sounds beautiful.”

 

“Sounds like a fucking hamster cage if you ask me,” Looks over at Hendery with sympathy. “-I’m not saying you’re wrong. It’s beautiful, it really is. That’s how they keep us in here.”

 

“-Have you ever been?” Goes to the edge and sits —grimacing at the damp patches along the backs of his thighs. Rests on his back, palms against his head. Legs dangling down. “-outside of here?”

 

“I wasn’t born here,” Ten sighs, joining him. “-so I started way out there —came here sorta by accident.”

 

“You plan on getting out again?” Ignores the water soaking into his jacket now.

 

“Not yet,” Looks out into the sky. For a moment, he lets himself get fooled by the sim-stars. “-I’ve got work to do.” Turns to him. “-we’ve got work to do.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Oh, nice try, Luc—

 

Snatches the digi-cone away just as his mouth clamps down on it. “-aww, babe, come on —sauce me like one bi—

 

“-N’uh- uh,” Grins, leaning further back against the couch as Lucas strains to reach the other’s outstretched arm, pajama clad knees on either side of Jungwoo’s waist.

 

Buzzing from an incoming call averts him and Xuxi snaps up the matcha-vanilla ice, falling against the other—chin clonking into his chest —cone cracking in half, laughing and wincing from brain freeze. Jungwoo shoots him a sulky look and struggles from under him, grimacing from the crumbs, and stalks off to the kitchen.

 

Leans against the fridge, connects his invisicom. “-yeah?”

 

“You run the program?”

 

“Mmhm.” Nods, frowning at a line of ants filing along the wall to the ceiling vent. “-two, three days ago? That what you wanted?”

 

“And so? No slip-ups, right?”

 

“Yeah. Yanks open the fridge, hauls out a jar of Paradise peanut butter. “-you’re lucky he came back from a real glitch-job —guy was too swamped to even…” Clamps a metal spoon between his teeth. Scoops a hefty dollop into his mouth. “-you really let fly, huh —throwing in all those curse words at the beginning…”

 

And the whole thing went smoothly? Like actually.”

 

“Right.” Frets when he feels cone crumbs get into his pants. “-wasn’t too far-flung, I guess —you might wanna be more careful next time you write one though...” Sighs, dabbing at vanilla splotches along his poly-synth shirt. Spoons up more peanut butter, chewing. “-you didn’t have Xiaojun run a pre-tester this time, did you?”

 

“Fuck, no —guy’s rates are climbing like a fuckin’ hexapod on a burning stick —ya think I can afford this while tryna get in three meals a d—

 

“-Thought you guys were close, huh. Wouldn’t he give you a discount?”

 

“Whatever, that’s not important. Anyways, so’s he in or nah?”

 

“Nn...inconclusive,” Wiggles his bum to get out the remaining crumbs. Some get in his boxers and Jungwoo huffs, shoves a boss-sized glob of PB down his throat before yanking his waistband, whipping the itchy sands out. “-I dunno —he didn’t seem too enthusiastic about it either way?”

 

Other end apparently ignored his struggle, and somehow comprehended his garbled babble.

 

Chicken shit —the hell do we do now? Spend another six hundo building a new dis—

 

“-If you want him on your side so bad, just talk to him yourself,” Silence. Scoops crumbs from the floor, hovers a hand over the heat-sensor waste-bin. Scatters them down. “-not like he got some restraining order ever since y’all split...”

 

“He’d never agree if I was that direct. We gotta go from the inside.”

 

“You think maybe the reason we’re here right now is ‘cause he’s tired of playing snakes and ladders with you?”

 

Silence again. Glances over at Xuxi through the counter window —he’s long finished the cone and now he’s got his visor on, apparently running some race car sim. “-anyways, it’s cool —he caught my backup zip.”

 

Yeah? And how’d you do that?”

 

“Dude likes playing around —grabbed my ankle ‘fore I swung off into the night,”

 

“Oh, shiiit.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Niceee. Any updates on that deal?”

 

“Nah,” Unclips the cover on his inner sleeve —twirling the shiny, red program between his fingers. “-I’d get a notif if he synced his nanofeed. I’ll let you know if that changes. Sign out?”

 

“Yeah, cheers.”

 

“What was that all about?” Turns to Xuxi after he slumps back along the couch. Presses his face into the guy’s neck. “-nn, business call.” Snorts softly. “-that Ten’s cookin’ up a real neostorm, you feel me?” Sighs. “-you in?”

 

Hell yeah...!” Scoffs, nudging his slack shoulder. “-what’d I gotta do?”

 

“Hmm…” Digs for that red program again. Hands it to him, but keeps his grip tight. “-haven’t heard from Yangyang since yesterday...starting to think that face merger bird operation might be a no-go? Talk to him, maybe.”

 

“Got it, babe.” Still manages to catch him on the cheek. “-thanks for the cone,”

 

“You’re so not welcome.” That was my last contrab-ice —vanilla swirl too. Snorts. “-kidding. Love ya,”

 

Last thing he sees is the front of Yukhei’s leather Vans as he reverse-dives out the window, hooting —We gotta dream, mannn —hair flaring above his head as he plummets, neogliding down into madness below.

 

...

 

In the early evening, a heavy drilling like gunfire rattles the ceiling. Johnny clears up the plates, muttering —Get a loada this motherf… —dumping the stuff in the sink. Waves at Mark — Hey, I wanna show you something, both heading off into his room, the floor vibrating under their feet.

 

Kneels down by stacks of scratched-up fiberglass crates. Here, the drilling worsens —Mark jams both ears to soften it into a hum. He had built-in noise-cancelling, but couldn’t recall the command function amid the racket.

 

Johnny sets an aged monitor on the bed, brows pinched, followed with a matching drive and a cracked crystalline case of floppies, coated with dust. Digs for the end of the plug in the crate, untangling the cable. Chuckles, glancing at the other guy’s raised brows.

 

“Yeah, so I sorta collected a lotta old junk over the years…” Shrugs, plugging into the wall socket, other hand plugging an ear. Hell, if blood was air I’d be losing it by the ton right now.. .  “-and I suck at programming so I can’t really tinker around with stuff —but, eh. Floppies are fun. Here, pick one.”

 

Mark takes a square turquoise disk into his hands, sees the title —Simon Says. Deafening drilling reenters, caving in his shoulders. Squints. “-so, like, uh, you store music and stuff?”

 

“More than music.” Grins, somewhat strained. He could make simple ear plugs with wads of toilet paper soaked in warm water —wasn’t worth the trouble right now. “-it’s a whole ‘nother world in there.”

 

Points to the drive slot with his chin. “-come on, slip it in.”

 

Looks down, notices Johnny’s gripping his other hand, gentle but firm. “-I’ll explain later. Go for it,”

 

So Mark presses in the floppy with both hands —and before the other guy can laugh, the room shrieks to black. Silence.

 

Slowly, glowing blue text appears on the dark screen.

 

Yesterday,                           Past,

 

Today,                                 Present,

 

Tomorrow,                           Future,

 

             Where are you now ?

 

The question mark flashes and all the times scatter and disappear. Where are you now ?  fades as something new dominates the blackness. 

 

             Which moment do you live in?

 

A stream of photons flash down the monitor screen and a glowing grid emerges underneath them. The whole room ripples. Mark’s grip tightens. One by one, the local settings around them crumble into pure data. Minute fragments stretch and twist into fiberoptic nerves reviving ancient factory circuitry. Static, all static. Pixels rain down from crisscrossed lattices of logic forming a web along the ceiling. They shrink and morph into endless strings of ones and zeros. Mark watches as the digits eat through their linked hands, dissolving them into the cybernetic arena.

 

Slowly, the walls rise. White upon white fills their vision until 3D neon grids materialize from the floor, twisting and flattening into skeletal frames of various objects. A glass tank bottomed with sand. Shards of metal glittering along the side of a nylon mask half buried underneath. Across one wall, a massive reflective panel warps their surroundings into wavy blue-grey lines.

 

Mark’s nose scrunches at the thick odours of plaster, steel and staticky plexiglass. Twists his head up to see an old white television —no larger than a cereal box, resting slanted over a crumbling column of white cement. More of these relics lay scattered in the distance. Masks. Sports cars. Tube lights.

 

“Holy sh…” Looks down at his arms. “-woah.”

 

“Yeah,” Johnny grins. “-it’s your default mod skin.” His attire changed too. “-I think you got a second one too. I like this one better.”

 

Mark admires the style —blue-black satin sleeves underneath shimmery, translucent ones. Matching dark vest. Deep veridian Vans with the white laces done up his shins, clad in loose silky sweats. “-man, lookit this vogue, futuristic shit…”

 

“Really makes you feel a whole lot different, huh?” Pulls him to standing. Turns his chin. “-come on, there’s more to see,”

 

Nods, exhaling a long breath. Even the air here buzzed with a different sound.

 

“So, the reason we had to hold hands is ‘cause this system screen-captures only once —gotta let it read us as one unit.” Johnny explains, leading them past a red Lambo hull. “-kinda retro, I know, and not in a good way.” Shrugs. “-every designer’s got their quirks, I guess.”

 

“You designed this?” Pauses to stare at a gas mask overrun in thick, mossy lace.

 

“Me? Nah, I could never,” Picks up a mask lying next to it, simple black covered in metallic technicolor gems. “-I think I came up with the sketch for this thing, but that’s it.” Turns away, raises a finger. “-now listen. You hear that?”

 

Mark shuts his eyes and holds still. Blinks, frowning. “-hey, isn’t that…”

 

“Yeah —you can still hear the drilling —means the connection's not so good.” Tosses the glittering fabric back down. “-s’always a bit wonky in the beginning —longer you stay here, better it gets.”

 

Shivers. “-like it’s replacing reality or something?”

 

“Something like that.”  

 

They reach a large bench of metal tubes fused together like logs, wheels underneath. Johnny sank down on one end, while Mark leans back from the long side, staring at the missing ceiling.

 

“It’s necessary, I think, to disconnect sometimes. From all that stuff out there.” Laughs. “-I guess maybe it’s kinda backwards to go here of all places to do that, but like...where else can we go now?”

 

Mark doesn’t say anything at first.

 

“I don’t know.” Turns, some hair falling in his eyes. “-like I don’t think it’s about a specific place —I think it’s more like, like, I dunno, a feeling...or something?” Sighs. “-I dunno, maybe that’s stupid, forget I said that.”

 

“No, I think I see what you’re getting at,” Picks at a loose metal stud on his jacket. “-like look at the people outside right now. It’s like they’ve got no sense of what they want —all they know is what they don’t want —so they pay to have all their pain sucked out.”

 

“Is it like they’re afraid of pain or something?”

 

“Maybe that’s part of it.” Studies the tilted ancient Macintosh some meters off.  Its clunky keyboard sunk halfway in the block. “-who am I to talk, anyways, I probably did the same thing.”

 

“What did you hope for, when you did it?” Mark asks. “-what did you think was gonna happen?”

 

“I thought I could restart everything. I thought I’d be free to do what I wanted because I wouldn’t know what I was afraid of anymore.” Gets up, motions for him to come along. “-but the brain’s kinda funny, you know? So’s the whole world, I guess.”

 

After the operation, they fit you with a memory aid. Kinda like a hearing aid, but they nestle it —a hexagonal chip, in your brain, wire it over the amygdala. Your memory as a Carrier is heavily compromised. Your mnemonic interferes with retaining your own new memories. Go figure. Your life’s work has become retaining the memories of others, albeit in a separate storage device.

 

So the memory aid works to record your day-to-day experiences as you experience them. You can hyper-replay events whenever you want, except during transfers. Johnny likes to hyp-rep right before he falls asleep and right when he wakes up. He replays yesterdays.

 

He has to. If you forget to replay a day, it gets discarded. You wake up the next day, and something feels like it’s missing. Things make less sense. Johnny has forgotten to replay yesterday from time to time. Wonders what he missed in those days.

 

Sometimes you forget little things, but sometimes you forget entire people. You see unfamiliar faces drop into your apartment and you think —shit, please tell me they’re friends. Please tell me they’re just friends.

 

Most of the time, they’re just friends.

 

When they aren’t, Johnny has the right friends to get him out of it. Most of the time.

 

An exhalation of awe cuts his thoughts and he turns to see Mark marveling at the scene around them. Johnny crooks a smile. He’s been here so often, he doesn’t notice the colour change.

 

Red lights wash over them, a massive poster of blue backlights with steel-chrome finishes hangs on their right. A row of metal poles replace a wall on the opposite side. A glass tank, third of the way filled with sand sits amid a sparse wooden casing. Curiously, a lean row of neon shines down on the sand, as if it once housed something living.

 

When Mark notices the old television —that he now realizes is actually an early computer, resting slanted on the white block, he realizes they’ve been here already.

 

“Wait...isn’t this…”

 

“It’s a copy of the entrance, yeah. It’s not the same room.” Johnny steps over and sits cross legged before a row of three tiny black televisions, glowing undersea blue. No remote lays in sight. Mark joins him, squinting at the undulating screens.

 

“You can picture it like one of those Russian nesting dolls —or like a file folder that endlessly opens to more folders,” Leans towards the middle screen. Fiddles with the buttons along the bottom. “-I mean, this whole place is pretty much a memory storage device —in three dimensions, sure, but that doesn’t change its function.”

 

“You can store stuff in here?”

 

“Sure! Inside these.” Taps the television. “-but each room has limitations, based on its programmed commands. This,” Eyes the space around them. “-is the REM room.”

 

“So…”

 

“Mmhm.” Johnny nods, reading his internal transmish. “-it stores dreams.”

 

“No. You’re kidding.”

 

“It’s true.” Smiles, a bit ruefully. “-sometimes I sleep here, when the drilling gets too loud.” I’ve always wondered where it comes from, but never gotten around to checking it out. Pauses. “-anyways, so when I sleep here —see the screens, they’re always running —this shit’s on 24/7.”

 

“So they…”

 

“Yeah. It’s all in there. Whenever I decide to stay here for the night.” Leans back, seems to have frozen the screen to where he’d wanted. All Mark sees is a blur of colour and motion —shattered butterflies dipped in chrome and absinthe. “-you asked earlier about my dreams…” Stares at the slope on his Vans, pink under the light. “-do you want to actually see one…?”

 

Mark’s quiet for a moment.

 

“Sure.” He nods. Squeezes the sleeve of Johnny’s jacket lightly. “-let’s watch one together.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Just so you know,” Johnny leans back, adjusting his collar. “-I’ve got no idea what both of us are gonna see —this’s from a while back, and I don’t remember any of this when I wake up, haha,”

 

“No sweat, dude. Just like the movies, right?”

 

“Right,” Blinks, pausing. “-oh, dang, almost forgot —we gotta watch with these…”

 

Mark pinches the specs with both hands, whistling. “-aw, sick —throwback, huh?” Admires the detail —one lens blue, the other red.

 

“Yeah.” Laughs. Keeps his gaze at the glasses. Architect’s a real 90s buff...

 

Nudges Johnny’s arm with an elbow, quiet grin. “-ready whenever you are,”

 

Exhales. Slides the glasses on. “-okay. Let’s do it.”

 

Beyond his knees, Mark’s shadow softens, fading along the edges, merging with those cast by the televisions. From time to time, thin flushes of space inside the shadow would lighten, shifting in brightness like eyes blinking. A hush falls into the room. A hush like water sighing from a distant tap. He looks up. Brings his face closer to the iron-ribbed platform beneath the screens, he smooths off a line of damp earth from the crease.

 

Iron crumbles under his touch, rubbing off silver onto his fingers. He places his whole hand there and the iron comes apart like crab shells left out for weeks in the sun. More soil spills out. Mark pushes his hand in, letting the pithy coolness sink into his skin.

 

Now he can smell it too. It smells inky, distinct, forgotten. When he takes his hand out, he feels younger, like he’s seven again. Some pine needles cling to his fingers. Brushing them off, Mark notices his legs feel cool and damp. Soil. Against his toes, a feathery scratching revealing itself as an ant —a large black one, makes it to his ankle before getting swept off.

 

Mark looks up to clear skies overhead, peeking from gaps of shimmering leaves. Somehow, it’s all so distinct. He can see it, the veins of each leaf. The minute spots along the branches. The air. Shit, he can even see the dust motes in the air.

 

They must dwarf the treetops by at least a hundred feet.

 

The hush of the wind fills his ears again. Mark closes his eyes. Just breathes for a while. When he opens his eyes, he realizes the flickering shadows from earlier, now shifting across his legs, are from the trees. Were things always flipped like this in dreams? Did trees start as leaves in the air and then grow their trunks down?

 

A heavy object knocks into his toe. Mark eyes the swollen bruised apple, a shallow bite taken on one side. Picks it up. Sniffs at the skin. Sweet, pungent ferment fills his nose. Drops it with a shudder. Feels something worming in his skin.

 

Johnny is nowhere in sight.

 

A wet crunch and a spray glances his neck from the left. Mark looks to see a skinny Japanese teenager consuming a cantaloupe through the skin. Her entire mouth is covered in blood and it runs down her neck, colouring the juices and her teeth pink. Ignoring the dark saliva rolling and staining her hands, she keeps eating even though it causes her visible pain.

 

Some feet away, more people gather by the bases of trees, eating and bleeding from the mouth. A man in his late forties leans in, consuming an entire durian from the skin. The spiked, wooded skin fails to crack but he keeps gnawing at the same patch. From the repeated breaks he has to take, spitting blackened globs onto the grass, Mark guesses his tongue must look something like telephone wires.  

 

He places a stilted hand on the girl’s shoulder, but there’s no effect. She continues eating. The noise from the chewing overpowers all other sounds. He can no longer hear the wind, the water, the birds. As they continue to eat, Mark watches them change.

 

At first, he thinks the blood is simply spreading down their bodies, but when he studies closer, Mark realizes it isn’t blood —a giant cavity opens from their chin to torso. Serrated with human canines, they grow larger the more they eat.

 

Just as someone reaches an impossibly long arm towards him, Mark falls back into soft, waterlogged bark that melts into a curtain of plastic painted with cartoonish green flowers.

 

He lands in a bathtub.

 

Water laps at his ankles, blood pink. Something soft presses into his thigh. A naked boy around his age lies unconscious beside him. Mark’s chest twists —thinking it’s Donghyuck from the soaked hair, breath returning when he sees the nose is wrong.

 

The boy isn’t dead. His right arm slung over his waist shifts as his abdomen contracts weakly with each exhalation. Long, attractive fingers scoop the boy’s underarms and drag him out of the tub. Mark watches in horror as a man with pale hair sticks his entire arm down the boy’s throat, digging for something. He can see the jut of the man’s fingers moving beneath the skin on the boy’s chest. As the boy wakes, Mark hears the garbled, strained screams that shouldn’t exist.

 

He looks away but the image flips itself along the bathroom wall tiles and he sees a dozen sharp copies of the same scene. He sees the convulsing shoulders, the flapping hair as the boy is violently shaken until he becomes unresponsive. From the waist up, he hangs limp as the man keeps digging.

 

Mark curls down along the base of the tub, blowing water in and out of his mouth from the side. It smells like vomit and cough medicine. He hopes if he lies still enough the man won’t see him and come for him too. He hopes if he lies still enough he will disappear. Or the walls will disappear, then the ceiling, then everything all at once. Like falling asleep.

 

Somehow, he can’t close his eyes. He stares into the white of the tub, into the threads of dried blood that he knows won’t wash out anymore. Brings a thumb to the surface, starts chipping at one of the strands.

 

But instead of getting lighter, the dark thread thickens until Mark unearths an entire family of blood-coloured wires under the porcelain. His shoulder aches, then he finds he’s unable to rest his arm back down. Notices the wires have eaten into his fingers, running under his palms, merging with his polymeric veins.

 

He realizes his whole body is connected with the tub which has now become a dark storage closet with a screen glaring into his face. Now Mark sits upright, before a panel of painted steel knobs and levers. Like in dreams we all have, he experiences it firsthand while watching from outside himself.

 

He’s skinnier than he remembers. Much skinnier. His malnourished frame curls forward, calves tucked under the backless iron platform he sits on. He becomes aware of a burning behind his knees, under his arms, along his inner thighs. His legs feel sticky, the regions of burning feel raw and gooey. Sores. He’s sat here for so long he’s developed sores from infection.

 

From the blue light glancing off it, Mark sees his hair is now black. He knows human hair can turn white under severe stress. Is this another reversal? Only in a dream, only in a dream this can happen, he reminds himself. He won’t be able to change like this when he wakes up. Time doesn’t work like this for him, not in the real world.

 

Somehow, he envies the guy a little. You could see the way the world chipped away at his form. You could see the evidence.

 

Mark tries to see the image warped inside the pupils, but his eyes are clouded grey. He’s afraid to look at the screen. It feels too close, too confrontational. For a while, it’s too bright still. Then Mark squints and it slowly dims to red.

 

A glass tank. Three televisions. Two dark mounds by the screens. One of them turns around and looks Mark right in the eye. The middle screen shows parts of someone’s face, glowing white. Johnny sees him but doesn’t see him. He turns back, shaking the other lying unconscious on the floor.

 

...

 

“Another one…?” Doyoung frowns, hooking on his face mask. Peels off his latex gloves, pulls on a new pair. The woman lying on the steel table bleeds from the mouth, but the real concern is along her torso. Severe internal bleeding stains it purple, fluid buildup causes her stomach to swell.

 

The hospital was short on staff this week, so Doyoung got called in to do the internals. He’s not a doctor, but the patients die shortly upon arrival, so his line of work fits right in.

 

“Guess kids don’t give a shit about the damn signs,” The figure by the door shrugs. “-‘let’s save the trees by eating them’ wherever the fuck that logic comes from…” Pauses, arms crossed. “-or d’you think maybe it’s that revamped New Age neo-religion thing that’s been skeezin’ around town?”

 

“I wouldn’t know. I’m not religious.”

 

“You used to be,”

 

“Yeah, well,” Digs for a working marker in the file cabinet by the sink. “-there’s a reason I left…”

 

“No longer bought into the whole creation thing?”

 

“No, it’s…” Doyoung sighs. “-it’s more stupid than that.”

 

“Oh, yeah?”

 

“Yeah. So I had this stuffed Snorlax —it had a keychain and everything so I took it everywhere with me on my bag, right?”

 

“Right,”

 

“So, we used to have this thing every month called Regulate —we have this huge bonfire —the idea is that you toss out one of your possessions every month to detach yourself from ‘trivial worldly desires’ and—

 

“-And someone pyro-Regulated your little buddy,”

 

“-I was so frickin’ mad, you have no idea…” Grits, testing the marker on a spare notepad. Returns to the table. “-and he was limited edition too —flew all the way to Japan for that sucker...anyways, the whole point of Regulate is to ‘regain control of your life by regulating your needs until you only require the essentials’, right?”

 

“Mm,”

 

“Basically I decided the whole thing was bullshit —I mean, come on, it never snows around here —we have like one season which's somewhere between summer and fall —why not just run around naked, living in public restrooms if we really wanna discard everything we own?”

 

Regrets saying that immediately, already realizing all the issues with those living conditions. But the guy by the door doesn’t notice, or he doesn’t care —just makes a noncommittal sound, saying nothing.

 

And there were always these really weird rules… Like every Friday we blindfolded ourselves and had to guess the difference between real skin and carbon-synth skin just by touch...and whenever somebody got it wrong, they’d be forced to wear a whole skinsuit made of carbon-synth while the rest of us basically verbally humiliated them until they tore through the stuff. Then we’d all get really high in the living room and forget about the whole thing...

 

Anyways, the only reason I even joined was ‘cause my older brother dragged me into it he was seeing this girl who went there...and he also told me the guy I used to game with was there too and that apparently he “got hot”, so...

 

“You know something funny,” Doyoung finishes marking up the stomach before tracing down with his scalpel. “-forensics returned with the sample I sent them last week.”

 

“Oh, yeah?”

 

“Mm. The thing we talked about three days ago —the teeth —human teeth we found embedded in the skin in these guys.”

 

“Uh huh,”

 

“They weren’t teeth. Not once they attached to the blood vessels.”

 

He reaches for the metal tweezers on the tray, isolating a tooth rooted along the inner lining of the stomach region. Saws off the web of nodules with painstaking care, one by one. At first he'd thought they might be tumors. Maybe cancer.

 

Doyoung frees the red-soaked incisor, sets it along a pad of tissue on the tray. “-they’re eggs.”

 

...

 

The screen keeps running. Johnny leans over him, along the bed, floppy disk removed from the drive. Mark lies unresponsive, eyes open. Every once in a while, his fingers twitch. Sometimes his mouth moves, forming half-words.

 

He should’ve realized something went wrong the second Mark disappeared.

 

Johnny had woken in a hospital first. Then an underground restaurant. Then he woke up in his own room again. Mark had still been missing. And the lights were all wrong.

 

He’d seen a familiar figure standing against the bathroom light. His hair glowed white.

 

When his eyes adjusted, Johnny caught movement along the bathroom floor. An elbow, maybe a leg. Shit. Someone must’ve been dying in there.

 

Then the man reached the bed, knees making the mattress dip, holding Johnny down by the shoulders, legs caging him in. He couldn’t even struggle. Felt like wet sand sank across his entire body. The man leans in, forcing Johnny’s mouth open. Something lodges into his throat. Sharp, metallic. He’s afraid to swallow.

 

Then the man reaches an arm inside and pushes the object down.

 

Johnny woke for real, the feeling of fingers in his throat still sharp in his mind. He kept wanting to vomit, but nothing came out.

 

They’d woken up in his room again, skipping the REM completely. Just straight out, back into the real world. Mark lay still, both of them back in their old clothes again.

 

The screen shows static. Every now and then, Johnny can almost make out something glowing. But whatever he nearly sees always gets eaten back by static.

 

And then it shuts off.

 

Mark’s body jerks and he gasps as if he swallowed lungfuls of fluid. Then his breath comes out shrill and hollow, quivering. It now sounds like his lungs have holes in them. He grips Johnny’s wrist, trying to wrench his back off the bed, but the other guy keeps him down, afraid the movement will worsen it.  

 

Cheek pressed against the sheets, Mark feels bitter, metallic fluid leave his lips and his ears. He coughs, eyes wet, struggling to form words. He keeps gasping.

 

Johnny notices Mark’s hand moving around his wrist, his thumb in particular. It takes a few moments for him to realize Mark’s trying to find his pulse. He’s trying to slow his breathing to the same pace.

 

It takes several minutes. Then Mark reaches up and picks something from his hair.

 

Snorts faintly. “-you had a piece of egg there…”

 

Squints. Wipes at the corners of Mark's mouth with a sleeve. His ears still leak a little.

 

“Liar.”

 

“No, really…!” Rolls to rest his head along a mound of clothes. Moves his hands to his ears, self-conscious. “-I swear I saw it there—

 

“Okay. Okay, fine, I believe you,” Sighs, slumping down, facing him. “-what else was there?”

 

“Nothing —your hair’s fine now,”

 

“That’s not what I meant,”

 

Mark doesn't say anything for a second.

 

“You wanna know?” Eyes the monitor, now powered off. The aqua green floppy disk lies by his knee. “-you want me to tell you?”

 

“You don’t wanna tell me? It’s okay if you don’t.”

 

“No, sure, I can tell you but it’s like,” He sighs, brushes a shaky hand through his hair. “-I’m still tryna make sense of it myself, you know? Like it made no fucking sense, like no fucking sense and like I don’t even…”

 

He cuts himself off. Stares past Johnny for a while. Covers his face in hands.

 

“Hey, look, forget it —look, I’ll go get you someth—

 

“-I saw myself, Johnny. I saw myself,” Moves his palms up to press them into his forehead. Doesn’t quite meet his eyes. “-why was I in your dream...?”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Head ducked down, thighs pressed into the toilet lid, Mark can’t sleep. Yellow bathroom light pierces the corners of his eyes and he hunches over further. What he did, you can’t really call it sleeping, it’s more like necessary therapy. He shuts down the system for a while and lets everything quiet down. Technically, he doesn’t have to. If he does this, he can’t dream. 

 

But sometimes he needs to get his mind to stop running for a while. If Johnny has the problem of forgetting, Mark has the reverse. It happened long ago, but he can’t forget it. 

 

Human conversion therapy. No matter how closely they resembled them physically, humans couldn’t view androids as their equals. So they always made sure to make them weaker, somehow. Androids couldn’t physically harm humans. At first, their bodies simply wouldn’t allow it. The joints stuck fast, became immobile. After their system rewrote that code, however, humans had to try something different. 

 

Now the bodies slowly broke down afterwards. If androids raised a hand against humans, a cybernetic cancer overtook them. Mark’s never fought back whenever a human tried shit with him. He knew better. He doesn’t want to go out like that. 

 

He doesn’t know how people could still tell the difference with them. Sometimes he wakes up in the morning and he thinks he looks more human than they do. But they know. They’re subtle. Some guy’ll call out at him as he goes down the street. They’ll flip him off, then go on with their day. It happens so fast, Mark doesn’t register it then. 

 

Anyhow, where was he? Right. Hu-con. 

 

They forced them to eat food first. Mark remembers back then, when their modules were practically prehistoric. Now it’s burned into his brain. A stretch of beach. Some kid, barely two years out of construction, swallowing a mouthful of stale oatmeal. Choking, crashing his knees into wet sand as the electricity swarms his torso —rubber insulation melting off his inner wiring, the whole matrix already breaking down.

 

Their systems were underdeveloped back then. They couldn’t digest anything. It’s better now. Whenever Mark consumes something, it separates into water and minerals. His body can use the minerals, can’t use the water. It collects in a compartment along his side. He clips it open now, empties it into the toilet. 

 

Mark doesn’t know where his love for watermelon came from, but it’s been harming him for a while now. Their bodies couldn’t efficiently release organic compounds as waste. Sugar is organic. It clung to his tubing, forming a crusty, sticky layer that could potentially shut down his entire system.

 

He didn’t think it would be that bad. Shit, he must’ve caused Johnny a real scare when he passed out like that in the REM. Mark had gone off to the kitchen a while ago, opened the fridge. A little less of a mangled two-thirds remained of his melon. He couldn’t help it. He’d gotten up the night before, carved a squarish opening and had another two, three handfuls of the stuff. 

 

Eating food had gotten a lot easier after they programmed their brains to register flavour. Some kids developed serious cravings for sweets. They swallowed entire bags of candies, stole several packages of muffins and cupcakes. Spent hours in the shower, cleaning their wiring afterwards. 

 

Showers. Another thing they had to learn. Their skin wasn’t so good back then. Mark thinks the engineers must’ve used dish sponges as a reference. Whenever their skin got wet, it absorbed every bit of moisture and got at least ten pounds heavier. Sometimes the water bled through and you’d see a kid curled up on the ground, convulsing from shock. 

 

It wasn’t so much conversion therapy as product testing. They’d go through all these tests —whenever something went wrong, the engineers marked up future adjustments in their nanoPads. Mark remembers wondering the point of all this. In the end, they could never become human, still. The testers promised them acceptance. Once humans can’t tell you apart from them, they’ll finally accept you. They’ll finally love you, even. 

 

Mark ran off soon after that. Some of them had already. But they’d left too early, Mark knew, because they always came back. He knew them so well back then, he could recognize them by a hand, an ear. Maybe they programmed it that way on purpose. 

 

Mark left when he was sure he could blend in well enough. He could eat well enough, he had the gestures, the expressions down. He had it down to a performance art. 

 

He found an abandoned estate by the sea, some miles southwest. He hid in the garage. 

 

When the sun rose red across the water through the loose hinges, he remembers letting out a breath, the first breath that felt real ever since leaving. He didn’t need to breathe, but right then, he did, he really did. Was there anything more human than breathing? Mark felt like he finally made it. 

 

Then the scrape of white Keds against the grainy tarmac. Amber light reaching in through the gap, long shadows spanning out. Somebody lifted up the bottom of the door.

 

Mark blinked, shifting from his spot by the pungent tires and translucent cartons of gasoline. The guy by the door lets out an astonished laugh, shuffles in and wipes the grease off Mark’s face with a damp rag by the formica counter. Guess the estate wasn’t so abandoned after all.

 

...

 

When Doyoung wakes a little past 4 am, half-buried in sweaty nylon sheets, he tells himself he can’t do this anymore. Shrugs off the covers, sticks a hand in his hair, sniffs his fingernails, grimacing. Sighs, palms pressed into his eyes. He can tell it’s raining still. Wind blows in from the window, the sky the colour of violet noise. A chalet of sound simmers over the city below. 

 

Shook off the dust from his shirt on the floor, slips his arms through. Leaves the buttons. Elbows the lights on in the kitchen, head turned to the sink. Gets lost in the sounds, the crinkling and then the tearing and then the sifting of the dark roast. Cracks two Zoloft, almost slips it into the mug. Dumps the stuff into the sink, runs the faucet. 

 

“What’s this…?” Chin pressing into Doyoung’s shoulder, breath warming his neck. “-was it that bad…?”

 

Sighs, sets the electric kettle on boil. Nudges away, but the guy presses his elbows lightly against his semi-bare chest, hands locking him in. Doyoung rolls his eyes. Never bothered getting dressed, of course.

 

“It was fine. I gotta go soon.”

 

“Stay a little longer. Come on, get some more sleep.”

 

Scoffs, eyeing the dark powder in his mug.

 

“You never let me get any sleep…” Chuckles. “-I snagged like what, two hours last night?”

 

“Can you blame me?” He mumbles into his hair. “-frickin’ hardly get any visitors here since...nn, if you really wanted to get sleep you woulda just went home.”

 

Gives up making his coffee for now. Turns around, looking up, picking the sand out of the other guy’s rose-coloured hair. Did he always have those freckles?  He grins, slipping a hand over Doyoung’s, pulling it down, laughing when the skinnier guy tugs it out of his grip. “-not now. Go do it in the bathroom or something.”

 

“You’re such a little bitch in the morning.”

 

“Oh, screw you.” Looks to the side. “-nine years and you never changed, not even a little.”

 

“Oh, yeah?” 

 

“Mmhm. You've never. Under all that, you’re still that little kid who cried at the party.”

 

“Uh huh,”

 

“Yeah, you just wanted some milk. And they ran out.” Looks away as the guy starts laughing, dimples and all that. “-no really. Johnny’s Mom had it all on video camera —I can pull it out now if you don’t believe me.”

 

“Video camera, huh…” He chuckles. “-you should see what I got of you on video camera.”

 

Doyoung rolls his eyes. He’s impossible. He really is.  

 

Shuffles to get leftover takeout, Jaehyun pulling him two steps back every third step he goes. Elbows him gently in the ribs, giving him an exasperated look when the guy grunts —fakes getting shot in the gut. Rests his chin along Doyoung’s bedhead again afterwards, still chuckling.

 

“You know, I miss going through these.” The leaner guy eyes the photographs taped to the fridge. 

 

Lingers on the one where there’s five kids crouched around a tree stump painted with race cars and goldfish. With all the green, it must be somewhere between spring and summer. Jaehyun’s the one wearing a black t-shirt with a red star in the middle, holding a peace sign and a fistful of Pokemon cards in the other hand. On the other end, Doyoung’s wearing a baggy cyan polo shirt, only smiling with his teeth, his cheek stained from the pizza pocket he held, Nerf gun wedged under his other arm. 

 

Jungwoo wears his hair in a shaggy skater-boi do’ that looks all wrong ‘cause his Mom didn’t want him to get detention. He looks so sharp in a navy sweater vest over his collared shirt —but everyone knew he rolled the best joints behind the porch when his parents weren’t home. Xiaojun’s chin presses into the edge of the stump, smiling so hard you can barely see his eyes, but his eyebrows stood out even then. You can’t see much of his shirt behind the stump, but he holds his favourite Harry Potter wand in one hand, so with the little bit of green and yellow you do see around his wrist, you can guess. 

 

Then there’s Johnny. Wearing a Super Broccoli tee, making the rock-n-roll sign with both hands, sticking his tongue out, his hair in the actual skater-boi cut. Barbecue sauce stains on his khaki shorts. Xiaojun’s head is just inches below, now Doyoung wonders with humor if any sauce wiped off into his hair. Were they really that happy back then or did someone’s parents just promise extra pizza?

 

“When’s the last time you saw him?” Doyoung turns, eyes Jae’s flushed nose. 

 

“Johnny? I think he visited some months ago, last year. He doesn’t really wanna see me. Not after what happened.”

 

“That old thing?” Picks off that photograph and looks at Jaehyun, who just nods. Folds it in half, stuffs it his shirt pocket. “-thought of all the people, he'd understand it the most.”

 

“Yeah, I thought so too,”

 

“You were just trying to help him, jeez...haven’t you tried telling him that?” But the other just shifts his gaze away from the pictures. “-there was literally nothing we could do —at least you tried to do something abou—

 

“-He walked in at a bad time, a really bad time, okay? I wasn’t done and then he saw all that shit on the floor…” Chuckles. “-it’s funny. He doesn’t even remember him anymore and somehow he still reacted like…”

 

“-Jae—

 

“-I’m done trying to explain it to him. I’ve tried over and over again and I can’t make it look like it wasn’t my fault —because it was my fault, okay?” Rolls his eyes, loosening his grip on Do’s shoulders. “-whatever. He’s never gonna forgive me for it.” 

 

Lets go of him, goes over to the sink, elbows leaning in, pressing his forehead into his wrists. Turns his face just slightly up. “-if you wanna see him so bad, just drop by his place. He won’t mind seeing you —you never did anything.”

 

“Hey…”

 

“I...I should’ve just listened to you, before, back then,” Sighs, picking at the smudges of Zoloft around the drain. “-I should’ve done nothing, instead of getting myself into this…”

 

Goes over, squeezing the back of his shoulder lightly. “-forget it. You already did it. You can’t change anything. Just forget about the whole thing.”

 

Grins. “-what, and go into Carrier business like him?” 

 

“You know what I mean.”

 

“I could do it. I could go into it too. It might be good for me. Who needs all these fucking memories, anyways?”

 

“You need to get some more sleep. You need to listen to yourself talk.”

 

He doesn’t say anything for a while. Then Jaehyun exhales, pushes off the sink, flips the cupboard open, digging around. “-sun’s gonna come up soon. Don't you have work?”

 

“Are you asking me to leave?”

 

“Do you need me to?” 

 

Turns away, heading back to the bedroom to get the rest of his clothes.

 

...

 

Johnny stares at the thin gap of light through the bathroom door from the bed. Mark’s been in there for almost an hour now. He wonders if he’s okay. 

 

“Whatever you saw, that wasn’t really my memory, you know,” He’d told him earlier. “-all that stuff —it’s all the transfers I’ve done, mixed in with whatever I remember after the operation. It could’ve been someone else’s memory entirely.”

 

“Someone remembers a guy who’s got my face?” The other guy glared. “-what the hell does that mean? And he was lookin’ all starved out of his mind…” Squeezed his eyes closed. “-something weird’s going on. This is too weird.”

 

“Mark—

 

“I wanna find that person. I wanna find the person who remembers that face.” Grips Johnny’s shoulder. “-can we find ‘em? Can we find the person somehow?”

 

“Look, I’m not sure…”

 

“Don’t lie to me, man. I know this shit works both ways. If you can get this stuff to record dreams, you can definitely get somebody to interpret or decipher or whatever, all this shit. You gotta know a guy.”

 

“You want me to find the guy who made the floppies?”

 

“Can you?” His expression softened, hopeful. “-you think he could read it, like figure it all out?”

 

“Well, it wasn’t the work of just one guy...a bunch of people put these together…” Johnny shifted his arm under his head. “-but I think I still have the address of one of the guys —he does repairs and coding for all this hardware stuff, so maybe he…”

 

“Let’s go tomorrow. Come on, yo, please, let’s at least try.” 

 

Shifted his eyes down, looking a bit uneasy. “-okay. Alright, maybe we can go in the morning...”

 

“Okay, alright, sick. Thanks so much, man.” Mark leaned in, then pulled back, flushing when he realized what he almost did. Laughed nervously. Mumbled that he has to use the bathroom sometime later. 

 

Johnny heard the toilet flushing. Then the tap running. After a while, when he’s almost asleep, he registers the bed dipping, creaking as Mark crawled back in. He smells mildly sweet, like some kind of fruit he can’t quite recall now.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

By morning, Mark hears a rustling and jangling by the foot of the bed. He yawns, dragging himself over by the elbows, peering at Johnny packing a noir adidas gym bag. He’s sealed the floppies in three layers of ziploc, slipping them between folded sweatpants and a worn windbreaker. Contrasting textures aside, it’s just black on black. Johnny glances at him, then goes back to packing. 

 

The guy steadies a hand over the front of a clear Flo-crate and eases out the one underneath. Setting down the lid, he reaches in and takes out a bundle in bubble wrap. Picks off the tape and unravels it in his lap. Mark hasn’t seen one in years. Not since he ran off. 

 

Positions the dark object in Mark’s palm, keeping his own hand on, still.

 

“Know how to work this?” 

 

“Yeah.” He lied. 

 

Johnny shifts his thumb around, mapping the components. “-so you’ve got your cylinder —where you store 'em bullets, then up here’s the frame —serves as a handle sorta thing for the whole deal  —down here you got your action —where you load the cartridges...you getting all of this?”

 

“Uh huh.”

 

“Alright, let’s try another way.” Sets the gun on the bed when he feels Mark’s hand shaking too much. “-so I’m giving you a revolver —specifically a Ruger GP100, ‘cause I’m assuming you don’t got much experience, am I right about that?”

 

“I guess, yeah,”

 

“I’m not tryna sound cocky —just wanna help you out. See, it’s easier to use a revolver —not much to it —open, insert, close, pull —you got your shot.” Demonstrates on it, sans bullets. “-problem is, you got fewer bullets and reloading’s a real pain. So, you’re gonna need some practice.”

 

“You got a place where I can?”

 

“Yeah. Couple blocks from here, I got a buddy who's basically abandoned his place ‘cause the plumbing’s screwed.” Pulls out another bundle, unwraps it. Mark recognizes this one immediately —a Glock 19. “-he’s got the basement floor —it’s connected to this huge, empty lot where we can test these out for a bit.”

 

“So you’ve got the semi-automatic.” Mark studies the polymer-clad model, fingers grazing the surface. “-I’m guessing more rounds, but harder to shoot?”

 

“Bingo. And you can reload while keeping your eye on the target.” Sighs, rebinding the .45 in his lap, then moving to the one on the bed. Stores them in a hidden compartment at the bottom of the bag he likely cut and sewed in himself. “-I’m making you do this ‘cause the place we’re heading to, it’s kinda sus. Maybe you been there ‘fore the sprawl fleshed out —but it’s not a spot folks around here frequent much anymore.”

 

“Yeah?” Mark rolls onto his back, scoots out so he’s looking at Johnny upside down, hair all flared out. “-what’s it used to be?”

 

“You ever heard of Jiangxin Square? In the Neo-Jianye District?” Packs a few days worth of 0 Mile rations in the side pocket. “-they were pretty big, three, four years ago —after they developed animatronic vineyards that grew like, self-evolving microchips. Crazy stuff. Closest thing to man-made alien life we’ve ever had.”

 

“Hey, actually, I think I’ve been there before…” Mark frowns, watching the light play over his sparse bangs. “ -a friend of mine, we used to take the tube there on the weekends —they had these mad cool glow-in-the-dark hexapod drones you could fit in your pocket. I dunno, haha, it was kinda stupid —we tried to collect all the colours…”

 

“Yeah, I remember that place. You took a left, then down the street there’s a dirty red canopy roof sticking from the alley of the place.” Combed through the layers, pausing. “-it shut down a year after those things went on the market. You know the whole place was a front, right?”

 

“I think I saw something like that on the news, yeah.” Got pretty wild —there was a whole riot and everything, smashed windows...cops were tryna round up all the scattering people…

 

“I was there when it happened. It was just after the operation though, so I can’t say my memory of it is too great, but man, that shit was brutal." Laughs. "-you’d think there’d been an earthquake or something —the roads were in shreds —two gutters filled with shattered concrete on either side of the street.”

 

Mark looks like he wants to say something, but stops himself, just stares at the contents. 

 

“And the smell. I can’t forget the smell —burning tires, melting plastic, all that yellow, sour dust mixed in with that broiled, artificial candied crap —a sweet shop had gone off nearby and you could smell the scorched blue raspberry and sticky mango-kiwi stuff…”

 

“...You seem to remember it pretty well, actually.” 

 

“Well, yeah, I guess so. It’s where I did my first transfer.” Johnny leaves the bag unzipped, sinks down on the bed beside him, thin layer of sweat along his forearms. “-a couple, in their mid-thirties, they’d just moved in, few doors down from my place —the rent was cheaper here, the husband had just lost his job.”

 

“Anyways, so it was a double-trans deal and they wanted me to erase the past 48 hours. The wife had been working retail in a small hardware store, the husband was helping out the local hairdresser for a few extra bucks. Their twelve year old daughter had gone out with a neighbor’s friend to tour the place. They ended up playing on the second floor of an empty townhouse half-way through construction. Exposed beams and all that.”

 

“The daughter found this shoebox filled with stuffed toys. There was this Tweety bird and packing cotton was coming out from the back of its head. She sticks her hand in there and pulls out a switch. She clicks it.”

 

Mark’s turned away from him, facing the wall.  

 

“They identified her from the teeth when they found her. Her parents kept a mold of it in their kitchen drawer. The friend was on the lower floor. She went deaf and got permanent brain damage from the blast.”

 

They stay quiet for a while. Johnny sighs, leaning down by Mark’s legs.

 

“Anyways, what I wanted to say was the shop you were talking about —they got sued for hiding explosives in their products which were all sold to kids, obviously.” Scratches at his scalp, wincing. “-so the whole street got trashed after that and nobody’s ever gotten around to rebuilding. Most of the places there aren’t legitimate. You gotta be real careful.”

 

“And your friend lives there?” 

 

“Sort of. He’s got a safehouse set close to where he works, it’s underground —constructed it himself a couple years back. It’s six meters under blackwater, no one in their right mind would try to get in.” 

 

“Shit...”

 

“Yeah. He’s got a much nicer place down south, in Tian-seom. Stays there most've the time,” Chuckles. “-don’t worry, we're staying elsewhere too —he’s always got a spare room booked in Honglian, nine minute walk from his place. We’re good, he’s in with the owner.”

 

“And we’ll be staying for a while?” 

 

“Yeah. I wanna chat with the guy for a bit.” It’ll also give us a chance to ditch the damn drilling around here. Johnny barely got any sleep last night —they’d started again around 4 am. “-he gets visitors from all over the place. Honestly, I trust him more than the billboards around here.”

 

“You think something’s going on?”

 

“I don’t know. But I want us to be ready if there is.”

 

...

 

Jungwoo’s only dozed off in the tube for about two minutes when it shrieks to a stop, knocking his head into the window ledge. Rubbing his poor skull, he glares at no one and everyone, until his gaze settled on a familiar head, three rows down. Waits until the guy turns slightly so he can check the profile.

 

“Doyoung?” 

 

The guy turns, face lighting up, though still clearly exhausted. His eyes are somewhat red, with mild blotches on his cheeks. Wipes his nose with his knuckles, settling down in the seat beside the blonde, some shaky seconds later. Jungwoo notices his ragged shirt under his dusty varsity, raising his brows.

 

“Jeez —rough night, huh?”

 

“In a manner of speaking,” Sifts a hand in his hair, crusted in sweat at the ends. “-thought I’d check up on somebody…” Turns out that somebody didn’t wanna talk much…

 

“Coolio. Do I know this somebody?”

 

“You should,” Doyoung shrugged. “-you know, if memory prevails…”

 

“Don’t tell me…”

 

“Yeah.” 

 

“How’d you even get in?”

 

“How I always get in. Takes about six of me to get their heads spinning.”

 

“You’re getting really good at that stuff, aren’t you?”

 

Grins, pulling out a folded square from his shirt. “-hey, remember this?”

 

Peers at the faded picture, scoffs. “-no way. You still have this?”

 

“Well, it’s found its way to his place. I think our parents had a habit of passing around photos, so now they’re scattered all over. I really like this one, though. It’s got all of us.”

 

“Yeah.” Then Jungwoo snorts, pointing at fetus Doyoung. “-what the heck were you wearing? It’s like —you look like a skin-coloured booger in a nightgown...!”

 

“Shut up, that wasn’t even my shirt…!” Rolls his eyes, laughing too. “-I think my pizza pocket exploded on my tank so I had to borrow Jae’s dad’s shirt...come on, it’s not that bad…”

 

“What, you had no other shirts?”

 

“Xiaojun’s mom really wanted to take that picture and then go back to like, I dunno, gardening or cooking or whatever our parents did back then.”

 

“Nahhh, she probably wanted to take this so now you’ll always have this pic of you in that ugly ass shir—

 

Nearly shoves him into the aisle, the other guy laughing harder. Strains over to study the photo again. “-okay, what is wrong with my hair?”

 

“Whoop, guess your mom really hates y—" Spits when he gets smacked in the shoulder. “-okay, but real talk, twelve-year-old you could still get more ladies with that cut than this salad bowl you got goin’ on—

 

“-Cut it out, jeez, I’m choking on my own sp…” Jungwoo wheezes. “-oh, God, why do we look like we came right out of a Mickey Mouse commercial…”

 

“Those were good times...” Shakes his head. “-wish I was still in that damn commercial.”

 

“Me too,” Then he squints, leaning closer. “-wait, hey —who’s that over there...?”

 

Doyoung wipes at his eyes, pauses at the spot above Jungwoo’s finger. Crouching beside Jaehyun in a black tank, an arm around his shoulder, a criss-crossed black strap wrapped around his other arm, pointing straight at the camera with his olive-toned super-soaker. He’s got no clue how he missed this boy earlier, then he sees a grainy white line that splits down Jae’s shoulder.

 

Jaehyun had folded out this part. 

 

“Wait, I think I remember him.” Jungwoo frowns. “-he only stayed with us for a month or two, his parents were overseas at the time. Scrawny little kid. Really hit it off with Jaehyun too —like they were frickin' soulmates or somethin' —made you pretty jealous for a while.”

 

“No. That didn’t happen did it? I wouldn’t get jealous over something dumb like that…”

 

“Yeah, you did. Come on, it’s okay. We got jealous when someone got better Pokemon cards.”

 

“I don’t remember.” Doyoung argued. “-seriously, I don’t. Like I’m not trying to be —I keep looking at this kid and I have no idea who he is.” 

 

“That’s not possible. Come on, you hung out with them more than I did. You guys were tight after a while...how can you not remember any of it?”

 

“I don’t know. I just don’t know, okay?”

 

“Did you transfer it out?”

 

Doyoung looks hurt. “-why would I do that? Why would I get rid of something like this?”

 

“If you didn’t, then maybe he must’ve done something.”

 

“Who, the kid...?”

 

No...” Exhales, pushing hair out of his forehead. “-him. How many times have you gone over to his place?”

 

“Jaehyun? What, we see each other from time to time —technically I don’t have to tell you this kind of stuff...what’re you saying, like he’s been messing with my brain or something?”

 

“You don’t know what he’s doing when you’re asleep.”

 

“Screw that. What would he get out of it? I didn’t do anything.”

 

“Maybe that’s not the point. Maybe he’s trying to—

 

“-Look, whatever.” Doyoung cuts in. “-what else do you remember about this kid?”

 

“He was younger than us. Shared a room with Jaehyun for a while, when he stayed. I think their parents knew each other or something.” Looks to the doors sliding open at Mivan Station. “-sometimes they’d go off together, alone. I think they disappeared, for like almost ten days once. Nobody had any idea what they did or where they went.”

 

“Disappeared, like ran off to nowhere? Wouldn’t the police have records for that?”

 

“Well, nobody ever called the cops. Guess our parents were too laissez-faire... I mean, they always came back, anyways."

 

“Okay, pause on the kid for a sec,” Doyoung said. “-do you remember this weird pseudo-religion youth group thing we went to some years after that?”

 

“What, you mean that whack Regulate shit? I made my mom pull me out of that stuff after like, two weeks tops.”

 

“Was the kid there too? Do you remember?”

 

“I’m not sure,” Pauses, letting his eyes unfocus. “-you know what, I think maybe he was. Yeah, I think his parents sent him there as a sort of stand-in for church, like maybe they were moving or something.”

 

“And he stayed? After you left?”

 

“Probably. Wasn’t that also around the time when you and Jae dated for a bit?”

 

Shook his head. “-it wasn’t really dating. We were like, sixteen, seventeen. I was sick of my brother always getting it on with that girl —I wanted to fool around. Jaehyun went along with it. Was fun while it lasted, I guess.”

 

Laughs. “-what d’you mean lasted? Isn’t it still going on?”

 

“Honestly,” Doyoung sighs. “-I don’t even get what we do sometimes. Like sometimes it’s normal messing around and then other times like...jeez, I don’t know…”

 

“What? You don’t know what?”

 

“It’s all jumbled up. I come over. I leave. I come back. Afterwards, I barely remember the conversations we had. It’s like every time I go from the end to start. Nothing makes sense.”

 

He leans his head back against the seat, staring at the lights. 

 

“You know, sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing. Like I know I’m tired and I should sleep, and then he calls and I’m at his place again,” Like some kinda sick, nightmarish replay. “-it’s like I’m too tired to know any better.”

 

A shrill grating tears through their ears as the tube enters a nasty part of the rails, making Doyoung's shoulders spike, jamming his ears shut.

 

“Look, hyung, I got an idea,” Jungwoo squeezes his arm as the grating dies down a little. “-stay over at my place for a bit. I’m not staying there much ‘cause the toilet won’t start, but if you just need a place to sleep, it should be fine.”

 

He doesn't say anything at first, just picks at the dirt in his fingernails. Feels the budding of a migraine. Sighs.

 

“I guess,” Snorts. “-isn’t the nearest bathroom Johnny’s place or something?”

 

“Yeah, but there’s half-decent bathrooms in the stores just outside. As for showers though, you’ll have to go a bit further than that.” He chuckles. “-you need somewhere to clear your head. I got a feeling he doesn’t want you to remember things for a reason.”

 

“You’re making him look damn evil. Is this really what you think?”

 

“Either it’s him or it’s something in his apartment. If it’s like that, you need to get him out of it too.”

 

“You’re scaring the shit out of me right now…”

 

Jungwoo rises from his seat, motioning for Doyoung shift over so he can leave. “-I gotta get off here. Also, I think you missed yours by at least five stops, so you’re gonna have come too, then get on the one going back.”

 

“Shit…”

 

“It's okay. Happens sometimes.”

 

...

 

Johnny reclines along a seat facing the sliding doors. Mark rests his head against his shoulder, asleep. Mod-Jianxi rests miles from where they are. Well, rest might not be the right word. Nothing really rests there. 

 

The tube grinds to a halt and a wave of people flood in. Johnny shifts closer to the window, one seat over, pulling Mark over also. He doesn’t stir. He could be imagining it, but he doesn’t think he hears the guy breathing. Maybe when you were in deep, you no longer had to. 

 

Brushes the side of Mark’s face with the back of hand. The skin’s warm. Johnny feels dumb now. Maybe he just had a light pulse. 

 

The shifting masses of bodies along the aisle make him uneasy. Someone’s bulging backpack nearly scrapes Mark in the face. Aren’t people supposed to take it off and carry it by hand? He’s about to protest when the guy wedges through the crowd and disappears at the next stop. 

 

He unzips his gym bag and pulls out the oversized windbreaker, slinging it around Mark’s shoulders and his own. It’s not so much that it’s cold in here. Opposite, really. It’s stuffy and greasy with body odour. Johnny’s just grateful nobody took a shit on the laminate floor this time —the stench had ran through the entire train. 

 

Johnny hopes the jacket will make people take a hint and not bug them. He’s not in the mood to talk to people right now. Honestly, he just wants to sleep, but he’s heard the nightmares of people falling asleep in the subway and waking up with trash stuffed in their mouths. They’ll have time to rest when they reached Honglian Hua. 

 

 He still feels bad for the morning. Mark had gone real quiet after Johnny recalled his first transfer. Then he’d said he felt kinda sick and stayed in the bathroom for a while. Did he really have to go into all that detail? The guy had just woken up and then he had to listen to that shit. No wonder most Carriers were single.

 

Johnny decides next time, he’ll be better. Next time when he gets the chance, he’s gonna ask Mark about his life, or his day or his favourite ice cream flavour or whatever. 

 

They'd arrived at Jungwoo's place earlier, had tried to get some target practice down. Mark's hands kept shaking, he could barely hit point blank. Johnny wondered if maybe it had something to do with the heavy gasoline odour in the lot. Mark complained of a burning stomach then later, a piercing migraine. Johnny had urged him to get some rest, and just sleep on the train.

 

Glancing down at Mark’s lashes, he feels a strained tug in his chest. It's strange. Somehow, he's been here before. Somehow, he’s sat like this, and someone like Mark had leaned his head against his shoulder once. Memory’s strange. It’s less of a mind thing. It’s more like Johnny’s shoulder muscles remember the weight of someone’s head against them and somehow Mark’s fell very close. 

 

It sounds bizarre, maybe even stupid, transferred into words, Johnny realizes. Like when he had those cherry pop rocks a few nights ago when Jungwoo dropped in. Somehow, memory was more than just the mind, he was sure of it. Most times, it’s a smell. Maybe sometimes, like now, it was touch. 

 

...

 

“You ever been to the underground?” 

 

Ten grasps Hendery’s hair back as he vomits over the edge of the radio tower. Chunks like crushed tomatoes plummet, shattering the chromatin hood of a hexacar parked miles below. Fractures spike across before shards shrink into the exposed steel-rubber organs. Hendery spits, wiping his lip with a white Vicuna sleeve. 

 

“You mean the sewer channels?” 

 

“No,” Ten laughs. “-you haven’t, have you? You wouldn’t be here if you did.”

 

“That bad?”

 

“You wouldn’t want to leave.”

 

“So you haven’t been either?” To which he narrows his eyes, smirking. 

 

“So then, how’d you find out about it?”

 

“See this,” Stretches out the fabric along his fingers. Flips it inside out. “-coordinates back here, etched along the forehead. Look —triple negatives. We gotta go down, way down.”

 

“You know the way?”

 

“No. But we will,” Pulls out another identical face merger. “-when we reach the channels, slip it on.”

 

“How do you know?”

 

He smiles.

 

“Hunch.” 

 

...

 

Yangyang ducks below the counter, flipping open the cardboard of needles. Stuffs a fistful —about twelve, into the safety band around his calf underneath his loose work trousers. Fastens the velcro across each tiny tube, flicks his pant leg back down. Kicks the carton back in place.

 

Leaves through the backdoor, catches Lucas waiting, already on his ‘cycle, heels planted on the ground. Swings a leg across, gripping the guy’s leather-clad waist. Easing out of the alley, they soon glide back into the lane. 

 

“You know the place?”

 

“All the mergers got trackers auto-installed on ‘em,” Yangyang grins. “-safety precaution.” 

 

“Seems kinda stalkerish…”

 

“Taeil knows hustlers always swipe some at pre-release,” Shrugs, squinting as the gust whips his hair, beating his jacket. “-we’re just following some thieves.”

 

“And we’re headin’ underground ‘stead of Mod-Jian ‘cause…”

 

“Closer,” Shrugs again, slips off an arm at a red light. Glances at his wrist tracker. “-what, I wanna save on gas.”

 

“And?”

 

“And what?” Rolls his eyes, exhales. “-okay, and I’m also curious. I’ve never been UG. You?”

 

“Yeah, man.” When they sped long past the main highway, Lucas lets out a whoop of excitement, hiking up the front wheel. Yangyang swears  —nearly slipping off. Squeezes him in the ribs, kicking his ankle. 

 

“You takin’ us to the highway to heaven or what?”

 

“Relax,” Yukhei said. “-neo got my back.”

 

“It frickin’ better.” Yangyang grits. Sure as hell don’t got your brain.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Mod-Jian rises roof first against the late coral sky. The two of them climb the stairs —one giant Rogers telephone ad accordion, leading out of the station. The railing splits the angry salaryman’s face in half. His eyes seem to follow them up. Johnny recalls a scene from an old summer blockbuster —a man stands shin-deep in the waves, watching slabs of concrete tenements crash into the current. Limbo. Old memories breaking off, disappearing into raw, subconscious freefall.

 

Now a chain of stores and minimarts runs along their left, scraped-up fibreglass displays plastered with a metallic sea of software flyers. The lone javacar rumbles by now and then, but mostly all they hear is the jingling of convenience store doors and flapping paper. People slip in and out of stores like ribbonfish. All they catch is a jacket sleeve, a flash of hair, a pant leg. 

 

Mark leans against him, seagrassy hoodie tied around his waist from the heat, rubbing the last bits of sleep onto Johnny’s shoulder. Hums to himself before turning.

 

“So. Where to?”

 

“Well, actually I kinda wanted to check in, but how ‘bout we get something to wake up first, haha.”

 

...

 

“Wow, this is sweet…!”

 

Johnny sighs. Mark cranes his head sideways to eat the minty green glob sandwiched between the tawny, studded maple walnut and some chocolate-vanilla mixture drippin’ all over his fingers. Wraps seven napkins around the guy’s hand, watching the foamy maple walnut slide off and rest along the dip between Mark’s cheek and left nostril. Mark catches a third of the creamy mush before it flops elegantly down his white shirt. Then splat —right into his foot. 

 

The other guy shakes his head, turning to the cashier.

 

“Sorry for the mess...apparently this guy over here doesn’t know how to actually, uh, eat an ice cream cone…”

 

Mephlfiwunmephwee …!” Mark protests behind him, mouth full. 

 

“...what?”

 

Mewinghphshwee

 

“Mark, yo, f'real, I can’t…”

 

Rolls his eyes, swallowing, wiping his mouth with the hem of his shirt. “- melon medley , bruh ...gotta eat that fir—

 

“-You just made a whole ass monster medley down here, Mark…”

 

But the guy’s just holding out the ends of his shirt, rolling the stain around, face glowing with joy. “-yooooo, check it —dude, I made a Lake Michigan but like golden chocolatey brown with like, lotsa lotsa nuts —oh-oh, yo-yo-yo, what if the nuts are like tiny little boats and like—

 

Johnny hauls him out of the store by the backpack handle. Then he goes back in and tosses down another seven napkins and foot-wipes at the Georgian Bay Mark left on the floor. 

 

...

 

Hey I’m getting a signal over here, look !

 

Ten nudges Hendery, motioning to the flicker of movement some dozen paces ahead. They hide behind the neon of a cheap hotel sign, blinking vertically blue-yellow-pink-violet —tropical vibes. Glowing windows by the garbage chutes illuminate the face of an otherwise dark figure, even his head covered. Tiny squiggles dance before him, then Hendery realizes they’re fingers —playing some airy sonata against the harsh corduroy of an old sofa. 

 

Foot planted atop its head, he scales it in a single, fluid motion, sofa crashing behind him. He folds into the darkness and when he resurfaces, his hat disappears. Hendery blinks. 

 

His face changed. 

 

No longer hooded, the curve of his eyelids soften, his brow shifts a touch higher, arching gently. His cheekbones fill out a bit, his jawline follows. His lips appear slightly fuller. Somehow, he seems older. 

 

Ten pauses, squinting. He’s seen this face before.

 

Catches a glimpse of his own reflection in the hotel window behind the neon. He’s wearing the same face. 

 

“We’ve gotta follow him,” Ten hisses. “-he’s one of them. I’m sure of it. He’s gotta be with the underground.”

 

“What if he sees us?”

 

“Just be quiet and we’ll be fine. Two, three meters behind, got it?”

 

“Okay.”

 

Smooths his face, making sure the merger stayed on. Dives into the sewer shaft heel first, moments after Ten goes under. 

 

...

 

“So, like, do you not wear shoes or…?”

 

Johnny keeps a hand on the grainy knob of the public tap across the street as Mark scrubs off the remaining spots and smudges between his toes. The guy blinks. “-oh, shoot.” Forgot to hologram them this morning...how come he didn’t notice on the train…?  “-well, I kinda lived around the beach for a while, so I’ve sorta gotten used to the, uh…”

 

“And you’re not worried about cuts and scrapes and whatnot?” 

 

Doesn’t ask him more about the beach, though he’s certainly curious. Far as I know, city’s cut off all connections with nature. Just pure digital space.

 

Shrugs, nodding for Johnny to shut the water. Towels off his foot with extra napkins he’d stuffed in his pocket. “-if you spend a lotta time like barefoot, your heels get stronger over time, right?”

 

“Sure,” He frowns, half-nodding. “-makes sense, I guess,”

 

A Mungyo Wok advert catches by Johnny’s foot. Glossy, saturated images of Chinese dim sum dominate the page with a small map and address by the bottom corner. Come try tonight’s special —braised abalone with roasted sea cucumber —a rare delight —at half the price! 

 

“Anyways,” Turns to squint down the road at the growing dust and sinking sun. Giggles when he hears Johnny’s stomach gurgle. “-should we get grub somewhere?” Eyes the chintzy flyer in the guy’s hand. “-like maybe that place?” 

 

...

 

“Funny…” 

 

“What? What’s going on?”

 

Yangyang turns to Lucas, after they’ve parked the megacycle by the curb in Tian-seom District. “-I’m getting three tracker signals now...before there were only two…”

 

“Some dude just popped outta nowhere with a face merger?”

 

“That’s not possible,” Fiddles with his earpiece, reloading his wrist tracker. “-they’re programmed to stay on as soon as they’re snitched —guy must’ve somehow taken it apart and rewired the settings...means he knows about it…”

 

“So he…”

 

“I dunno,” Yangyang shook his head. “-maybe. Maybe Taeil’s got a mole. Worse, he’s in on it too.”

 

“What do we do?”

 

“Nothing else we can do —go after ‘em,” Twirls the motor helmet in his hands. Sets it on the ground. “-you okay with leaving your bike here?”

 

“I can always get a new one,” Lucas shrugs. Grins. “-also it’s not mine.”

 

Snorts. “-real player, huh?” Bends down, reveals the yellow needles strapped to his leg. “-if you’re scared, you can take one a’ these.”

 

“I’m good. That stuff messes with your head, doesn’t it?”

 

“Yeah. You could say it like that, I guess.” Gestures to the iron sewer seal on the ground, Lucas helps him haul it outta the way. “-alright, boi. Let’s get this party started.”

 

...

 

Three diners down Mungyo, Johnny elbows through a shiny faux-wooden door, feeling how it swung in too easily. Pitted cement dives straight off into stairs and a frayed blue velvet carpet runs down the center, muffling their steps as Mark follows him down. The air soon buzzes with the haze of fried food, sesame oil and roasted peanuts. The carpet spills into a pool of threads at the landing, where the floor shifts to a bouncy woodchip-marble blend. No one greets them there. 

 

Mark lets Johnny weave them through a throng of noisy, lacquered tables glittering with near-empty wine glasses, bleary eyes and grimy nails. Tiny mounds of yellow-violet chicken bones clump along plates, oily fingers pick at meat strings stuck between teeth, spoons ripple glinting bowls of waxy pho soup. Honeyed light pools around them, leaving some faces and dishes lost to flash and shadow.

 

They stop by a corner table where a guy hunches over a browning volume bloated with fineprint. Time softened the edges so the pages drooped from the spine like fine hair. Johnny picks out a single black lacquered chopstick from the plexiglass holder and flicks over a page, whispering:

 

Expecto Patronum!”

 

Xiaojun jumps, panic melting into exasperated surprise when he recognizes the guy grinning over him. His gaze shifts over to Mark, friendly still, though he doesn’t know him. He’s got stunning eyes, Mark notices, framed by an impressive set of brows. In the dim lighting, his features absorb the shadows and become even more striking. 

 

“Oh, you’re a fan of Harry Potter?”

 

Xiaojun blushes, does the slightest nod, leaning closer into his novel. 

 

“Guy does a killer Snape impression too.” Johnny laughs, stealing two stools from the next table.

 

Only a couple plates litter the surface half-finished braised chicken feet and wrinkled tofu rolls, sitting cold in their bamboo steamers. They settle across from him, Xiaojun waving for the menus again.

 

“How’d you know I was gonna be here?” 

 

“You gotta go out and eat at some point,” Stabs two chopsticks into a tofu roll, stuffs it in his mouth. “-and this’s like, the only twenty-four hour joint for the next two, three miles?”

 

...

 

“Yo, I’m tellin’ you —he eats that Lao Gan Ma stuff with everything—

 

“I do not…!” Xiaojun groans, grinning exasperated. Mark watches him spoon more of the dark chili sauce into his plate. It leaves an oily orange residue, staining the peanuts violet-crimson. 

 

“Lucas told me he even eats it with cheese

 

The guy flicks oil at him, Johnny deflects it with a raised bamboo lid.  

 

“Seriously, though…” He wipes his eyes and sets the lid down. “-you should try some, Mark —it’s like the Chinese version of kimchi.” 

 

So the blonde pops a spoonful into his mouth and nearly spits, sending the spoon flying past Xiaojun’s head and into the tank of live crabs by the minibar. Sputters into a napkin, face scrunching into something like a shriveled squash. 

 

The other two absolutely lose it, palms slamming the table so hard it swerves, corner striking Johnny in the gut. A plate of something clatters onto the floor. “-oh my God, Mark, ” Johnny wheezes, gripping his side. “-you’re not supposed to eat it by itself…” 

 

Xiaojun’s cheek rests against his elbows, shaking, as he watches Mark pinch off the lid and gulp tea straight from the pot. Half of it soaks his shirt, turning his Michigan stain into something more like an indeterminate region of the Atlantic. Spits out the reedy leaves that don’t get caught in his drenched collar. The other guy picks off the rest and dabs at Mark’s neck with napkins as Johnny digs in his gym bag.

 

“Here,” Johnny pulls out a spare shirt and helps Mark get the wet mess off his head. “-wear this. It’s clean —wait, actually, hold on, lemme get…” Grabs a fistful of more napkins and dabs at Mark’s bare waist, blushing when he sees the tea’s soaked some of the front of his pants. “-uh…”

 

“S’okay, dude, I can get that,” Snickering, snatching the slightly damp papers from him, drying the rest himself. “-you should get the, uh,” Chin points at the black clump soaking into the other’s groin. Johnny looks down and swears, standing up. “-aw, Xiao, man —look, your…”

 

“Oh, shiiit —must’ve fell off when you whacked the table into…” Guy trails off, chuckling, tossing more napkins, then flings the remaining tea at the spot. “-hey, it can take off oil stains, okay…”

 

“Bull shit,” Johnny sputters, mock-gawking at Mark who splashes more tea at his crotch from the second pot. Just stops himself from chucking the leftover tofu rolls at his head, but then Xiaojun spews, sending stray chicken bones into Mark’s face, shielding his face with his hardcover as the guy balls up his Super Corn and starts firing peanuts at him and then the whole table swung into chaos.

 

...

 

“So, what made you guys wanna come all the way over here?” 

 

The three of them lean against Johnny’s gym bag outside Xiaojun’s store garage, legs strewn out across the pavement after getting kicked out of the restaurant. Mark tinkers with a pair of wires he found on the ground, folding and twisting it into a tiny man. The back of his throat hummed with sweet, acidic aftertaste of Chinese rice wine. They'd split a jar of it, kept chilled in Xiaojun's self-built minifridge. Gran's old recipe —shit's sweeter than water from a mountain stream. Mark's had the least, just doesn't hold it down as well as they do. 

 

As he watches the world fumble and dip like sea jellies on land, Mark becomes vaguely aware of their conversation.

 

“Wanted to check up on you,” Johnny punches Xiaojun lightly in the shoulder. “-make sure you’re still remembering to like, eat and sleep and poop...you know, stuff like that.”

 

“No, seriously,” Pushes his hand away, rolling his eyes. Some words get lost to the buzzing in Mark’s ears. “-look, I haven’t seen you since…”

 

The other turns his gaze to the street again, the side of his face twitching. 

 

“Yeah,” He said. “-I know.”

 

“So why are you here?”

 

Shifts, turning to dig for the floppies in the bag. Pulls out the aqua one, hands it to him. “-I want you to take a look at this. Something’s off. There’s gotta be something wrong with the system, some internal bug or…”

 

“What happened?”

 

“I went REM with Mark and the two of us got separated. I’m not sure if what he saw were even recorded dreams or something else entirely —same with me...When I went in it was like... Well, whatever the hell we saw in there —it wasn’t normal. So I was wondering if maybe you could…”

 

“Run a int-scan?” Shrugs. “-I can do that tonight, but it’ll take at least six hours with this file size. Which one is this, again?” Turns it in his hands, feeling the marks along its barcode with his laserprints, frowning. “-no, scrap that —at least two days. If you wanna do a sweep of the whole thing, not just REM room.”

 

“Could you find the bug with just REM?”

 

“Not likely,” Xiaojun knits his brow. “-when’s the last time you used this, minus most recent? You got no idea when it could’ve been tampered with, do you?”

 

“No. Not a clue.”

 

“Then I need to check everything,” Turns to him. “-have you ever lent it anyone?”

 

“No.”

 

“Then you should know,” Slips the floppy safely into his inner jacket pocket reinforced with cuben fiber. “-your problem might not be internal.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Mark breathes in the smell of old tires, feels the rubber ridges chafe his neck and elbows. Winces. Picks at the corner of his eyes, grazes a knuckle under his nose. He thought he was far from here. How’d he end up here again…?

 

Most of the lights are faint and far between. A ring of red haze burns around them, resembling suspended gaslights. Mark makes out edges and recesses rather than actual articles and equipment.

 

Feels the wall —rough, bouncy wood-chipboard as he stumbles in search of the bathroom. Something smooth brushes his thigh —a computer screen? Almost trips over a heap of books in the corner, swears, caught in the wrinkles of an old comforter. Then a curve scrapes across his knuckles, maybe a solar dish. 

 

Ankle hitting the cold, hard leg of a small trampoline, just as he makes it to a formica ledge marking an unmarked door. Mark thinks the light plays weirdly across it until he realizes the surface is covered with bulges —long-time exposure to chill and heat. The doorknob feels light and cold. When he turns it, the door makes a ruptured boom —as if unopened in years. 

 

More red light mists the interiors and Mark looks up, freezing in his tracks. 

 

Hanging from hooks fixed to the ceiling are bodies —running in two swaying rows down the room. Something’s off about them —no lesions, no gashes, no trauma whatsoever breaks the skin. Mark can’t even see signs of bruising or slight discolouration —just heavy, slaughterhouse haze washing over them. Yet they're all sunken in, as though all their muscles have been discarded.

 

Something cold and grainy brushes his shoulder. Mark turns, shouts —a thick, rusted chain runs straight out of a limp hand where the fingerbones should have been and when he peers closer he realizes none of the bodies have skeletons —only crude lengths of chain fashioned together —the jangled frame dark under the hot ceiling light bleeding through semi-translucent skin. 

 

It glimmers oddly, and Mark backs away, heel knocking into the door ledge. Grips the frame just before he slips, upsetting a steel table nearby, sending numerous tiny items scattering out. Hears someone shouting from down the hall, panics —grabbing what he can and stuffing them in his pocket and barreling out on his hands and heels and rolling behind an unfinished station wagon in the corner of the garage. 

 

Glimpses the door whip shut just as Xiaojun jogs in from a different one. Hovers over him, worried and confused.

 

“W-what’s the matter —are you okay?”

 

“Uh, um, I, uh…” Drags himself up, brushing off the dust on his lip, coughing. “-wait, wh...where’s Johnny…”

 

“He’s in the bathroom upstairs. You fell asleep so he and I took you to the little station over there —and got a sleeping bag and a pillow and inflatable mattress and everything…” 

 

Sighs, smacking at the dirt clinging to Mark’s back, looking over at the books in the corner. “-I told him you guys should just go home, but he wanted to talk a bit more on the floppy disk thing and...”

 

“What’s going on?” Johnny appears from behind, helps Xiaojun get Mark out of the grimy corner. “-whoa, dude, you’re shaking —what’s the m—

 

“-Bad dream,” Mark cuts in, shaking more dirt off his hair, hand feeling his jean pocket, head swinging. Fireworks bleed out, his vision going black for a bit. “-I-I had like a really, really bad dream...I wanna leave, I wanna get outta here...c-can we get outta here, please...?”

 

“Sure, yeah, whatever —I’ll...I’ll call a cab, I guess.” Johnny frowns, turning to Xiaojun, squeezing his shoulder. They exchange apologetic glances. Rolling the garage door open, he lets the other two back out into the night. 

 

...

 

When Mark wakes up again, he feels the thrumming of the floor under his feet, some sense of motion, his cheek pressed against tinted glass. Discerns the faint outline of a figure nearby, after his eyes adjust. Shifts closer, nestles into the warmth of his hoodie and sweatpants. Breathes in. Grips his arm. The cab makes a left, to a brighter, louder street. 

 

“Where…?” 

 

Shivers, pressing his face into Johnny’s shoulder, shielding his eyes.

 

“We’re almost there,” Chuckles, feeling Mark’s hair against his neck. “-it’s okay. Just go back to sleep…”

 

...

 

“Watch this,” Lucas grins, flicking his temple with a finger. Slowly, his irises pale to neon, bathing his cheekbones in a soft glow. “-pretty slick, huh?”

 

“Ono-Midori insets?”

 

“Yeah. Thirty-thou in the clinic, man.” 

 

Yangyang narrows his eyes, smirking. “-you didn’t get them done there, did you?”

 

“Nah,” Starts down the splintered pathway, the vision revealing rifts stuffed with used needles, broken glass and unidentifiable flotsam, hand on the wall. Some guy called Ten knew a place. “-you know me.”

 

“Was it painful?”

 

“Oh, yeah,” Jerks his hand back after a slimy patch. Wipes it on his pants. “-went blind for two hours after...”

 

“Shit. Hold up,” Yangyang adjusts his tracker. “-I just lost two signals.”

 

“Where’s the third?”

 

“It’s…” Freezes, grabs Lucas by the sleeve, ducking them into a tight side channel choked with spongy trash. Gags —someone’s pissed in here recently. Lucas’s knee digs into his back, heel against his ass. It’s dark. So dark —feels like the entire wall’s buzzing. Squirms, feeling something drip and run down his ear. Clamps his hand over the other guy’s eyes, hisses. “-getting closer.”

 

Scraping across the ground, the footfalls echo oddly. Yangyang realizes the person must be limping. As they draw nearer, labored breathing mixes in. 

 

Then he feels the breath mere inches from his face. 

 

Up close, he can’t tell whether the person is laughing or crying or gasping. The sounds warp into oily crunches like gravel under glass and the buzzing in the wall deepens until Yangyang feels the vibrations crawling all over him, towards the face. 

 

A beam of light sings from his palms and Yangyang watches as millions upon millions of ants flood the victim’s body, folding into every hair and crevice before the dark humanoid mass shrivels and collapses. 

 

The body vanished. 

 

He has just long enough to screen his mouth and Yukhei’s and then they are upon him as well. 

 

...

 

Mark’s feet trip over as they clamber into the hotel room, Johnny dropping his gym bag to catch him before the guy lands face first into the carpet. The shorter guy’s jaw knocks into his chest, making him laugh and giggle to himself. 

 

God, he should’ve known better than to pour Mark more of that sake when he complained about the cold. Should’ve given him a jacket or something but everything in the bag’s damp from their previous madness. And Mark was crying —guy was really balling it out, green snot and all, and yeah, Johnny wondered if maybe Mark cries all the time when he's drunk, but then part of him panicked and thought Shit, what the hell let 'im have some more of that stuff. So he had some more and Johnny did too and eventually he returned to his bubbly, giggly self again.

 

Which leads to where they are now —Mark's arm hooked around Johnny's neck, laughing, sniffling, swaggering, grinning like he's just won the lottery, hoodie on, hair all frazzled and sticking to his forehead. Knows he looks an entire mess and doesn't give a fuck. There's something there, Johnny thinks. It's all there. 

 

Finds himself bending in, Mark's breath against his ear. “-nngh, oi, God, shit —you're so cute ...ughh, I just…”

 

Crashes backwards against the bed, when the backs of his knees hook the frame, head swimming as he sinks a bit into the sheets. Just lays there for a while. Laughing —Mark wants to laugh, but the sound sounds far away —and maybe he can't feel his mouth moving right now, but it's okay because Johnny can still hear him, right? 

 

So now Johnny's towering over him —when was he not, let's be real —but now even on his knees, he's still taller and Mark's underneath and he’s laughing, he's laughing again, or maybe he's laughing still, he doesn't know anymore, but he's laughing, really laughing because Johnny's just so fucking tall and for some reason it’s funny, it’s just so funny and now he can feel his mouth moving with the laughing, feels it moving now and then, fading in and out, like when your earphones died in one end and you twist the jack like you're searching for a clean station, audio crackling in and out, some hypersped sea sonar.

 

Mark hasn't lost all sense in his fingers, can still steer them towards some vague destination, finds them landing curled against the hem of Johnny’s shirt, tugging loosely. Feels Johnny’s warm, mildly sweaty hands trying to gently wrench him free. 

 

“Hey…”

 

“Take off your shirt,” He mumbles, glimpsing their vague reflections in the flatscreen. The whites of his socks stick out against Johnny’s all-black ensemble, all but the back of his neck. “-come on, lemme see you…nn, wanna see you…”

 

“Mark,” Johnny finally succeeds in untangling his fingers, lacing them with his own to keep them from reaching. “-hey —behave. You’re better than this. I know you’re—

 

“-No, I’m not,” Holds his eye for a second, then breaks off. “-you don’t know anything.”

 

“Okay. Maybe I don’t. Maybe you’re r—

 

“-What's wrong, Johnny-ah...? Why're you being s—

 

“-You’re drunk. Mark, please —you’re drunk,” He said. “-I don’t. Not drunk guys.”

 

“Bullshit —you’re drunk too,” He retorted softly, twisting his face into the thick pillows. “-double negative…makes a positive…can’t you fucking do math…”

 

“Can you?” Chuckles. “-could you count backwards from 100 right now, skipping by seven?”

 

“What would'ja do if I reach zero...?”

 

Joins him down by the other pillow, glancing over. Picks off a scrap of tissue from his hair.

 

“Anything you want.” 

 

Snorts, staring at the dumb ceiling fan, blushing. “-boring asshole.”

 

...

 

Yangyang awakens, cheek smushed against the grass, sharp scent of earth in his nose, dirt caught between his teeth. Coughs, spitting as he hoists onto his elbows, eyes stinging. Rubs them with a knuckle after noticing his damp, grubby hands. Hauling himself to sitting and pauses.

 

A figure crouches by the water, morning light tracing his palms, then his jawline as he looks over. At first, Yangyang thinks the light doesn’t hit his eyes right, then he realizes they’re different colours. One silver cerulean, other earth. 

 

“Well, you’re finally up,” The guy sighs. Rises, shifts an arm up, freeing a shoal of glistening violet leaves. Light dapples his teal streaks. “-that was quite the trip, huh?”

 

“You’re…”

 

“Very much alive and well,” Laughs. Tosses the leaves into a plastic woven basket, hushed snapping as he gathers more. Gestures with his chin towards the trees. “-your friend’s waiting for you by the main house. Should we go join him?”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jaehyun lies on his side, watching the shadows of the leaves lap against the bed. It’s been almost six years since he first got the plants from Mod-Jian, three years since the reset. Two since the last of the fruit fell and rot. The microchip craze had just taken off then. 

 

He recalls squeezing through the half-jammed door of Xiaojun’s garage, steel grazing his back, hugging the duct-taped boxes to his chest. Setting the boxes down, brushing the dust of their hybridized monitor, wires running out the back like floral arteries. Knees touching as they sat cross legged while Xiaojun exacto-knived that shit and peeled back the flaps. 

 

“Look at this baby. We’re gonna change the world with this.”

 

“Forget changing the world —let’s change our digs first, yeah?” Laughing, coughing from cardboard dust in his nostrils. “-damn pigeons shitting all over our truck, turning it into some moldy gas-loaf…”

 

They’d shacked up in Xiaojun’s second-hand Silverado back then. The living room had given way to a sinkhole the year before and Jaehyun nearly dropped the sausages he’d been frying as he watched their favourite chesterfield topple over into the darkness. Yelped when the edge of the pan brushed his thigh, he’d just been wearing boxer shorts under a green-striped robe. Now he’s got a kidney-shaped scar that flashes in the sun.

 

“Here, hold this for a sec.” Xiaojun places a tangle of rubber cable covered in tiny white hairs in his hands, his own hands gloved. Jaehyun flinches a little when the hairs fan out and sting his palms. The stings don’t hurt, not exactly. It feels like they’re…

 

“Yeah, they need some of your blood. Antigens, too. They’re too weak by themselves.”

 

Jaehyun drops them into the dish of violet-silver fluid. Some hairs stick to his palms. Picks them off, flicking them in, shivering. The black rubber melts off, turning the cables transparent like glass noodles. All the hairs curl downwards and seem to take root to the bottom. 

 

“Jeez, never thought my kids would be actual bean sprouts…”

 

“They’re not your kids,” Xiaojun snorts. “-not really. It’s more like symbiosis, more neural than physical, though.”

 

“So do I mind-control them or vice versa?”

 

“It’s not about control, dude.” He covers the dish in a tinted cone, sets it near the garage window by three shafts of sun. “-they’ll eventually grow into an extension of your brain.”

 

“Wait... what ...? Hold on, why would I w...So this whole thing’s gonna—

 

“-No, it’s a creeping variety. The chips will bud along the vines. Meristems, all of ‘em. You still remember high school biology, don’t you?”

 

“Yeah. So we’re growing organ transplants for ourselves. On hybrid plants.”

 

He laughs.

 

“How else are we gonna live forever?” 

 

“You’re kidding, right?”

 

“Half-kidding. You can’t just switch out one of your lungs with these, so.”

 

“Yeah, ‘cause your body will reject it, right?”

 

“No, it’s got your surface epitopes, you’re fine. Problem is, they’re dead once you cut 'em from the vine.”

 

“So how’re we gonna fix that?” 

 

“Live shells, to grow them in. They should be human, so the cells can adapt to the internal environment. We could also try pigs, but trust me, it’s way easier to smuggle people than livestock nowadays, if you know where to look.”

 

“So what do you have in mind?” Jaehyun flattens out the cardboard and strips them apart. Slots them behind him, by the gasoline cartons. “-think maybe the plug-ins will do the job?”

 

“Just read my mind.” Winks. “-now we just need to convince Doyoung to break us into the facilities.”

 

...

 

Mark blinks to light, then slow rumbling outside, and then a face. Hold on. He knows this face. Right now the room’s too bright and it’s too quiet and he remembers. 

 

Something green. Closing his eyes, he sees it again. It’s something in his hand. Buzzing, flickering, flashing. Fireflies. He can feel the tiny, prickly feet tickle his fingers, neon playing across his palms. 

 

Smaller than he thought it’d be. Barely half a Nerf dart long. 

 

He’d seen it glowing on the sand. Crouched down, cupped his hands around it. Slipped it into Mark’s hand. Laughed nervously, he’d been scared at first. Thought the thing might bite him or some shit. 

 

“What’re you being chicken about? Jeez, Mark, it doesn’t even have a—

 

“-No, man, yo, what if it—

 

“-Stings you with its candle ass?” Snorts, neon sweeps over a dimple. “-okay, okay, hand it over—

 

“-Nah, nah, nah, it’s cool, it’s cool —yo, it’s my chingu now, lookit, it’s tryna—

 

Mark shouts, then squeaks when the firelight darts off, hovering over a glittery patch beyond the shore.

 

“Wow, hey, look at that —your chingu straight up ditched you for the lake…”

 

-Woot, guess who’s ditching ya for the lake, too—

 

He laughs, racing after Mark as he crashes across the water. 

 

A tree trunk painted with goldfish and...something, there was something else. Something at the back of some kid’s house. Had a really tragic haircut, it was almost funny, really. 

 

But that’s another guy. No, he remembers damp soil, moss crushed under their feet, balancing on the slimy limestone, pale yellow-green right under the shallows. Sand sticking to their soles, off-white shirts sticking to their backs as they swung back along the boardwalk. Mark, spitting when a half-crushed crab leg melts off his foot, at the outdoor tap by the parking lot. 

 

Other guy’s laughing again. Maybe it’s from the light, but his hair looks red, like some firetruck hood red, then Mark remembers it’s that one time he dyed his hair with cherry vodka, he can see flecks of it along his nape.  

 

It’s him, right? 

 

Something about his face seems a little off. Mark reaches over to brush some hair out of his eyes.

 

“J...”

 

No. He stops. Blinks again. 

 

Shit. 

 

Now that all the light’s seeped into his eyes, his mind starts screaming. It’s like a crescent razor squashes the back of his head for a while. Mark pinches Johnny’s ear gently, doesn’t wanna wake him up yet.

 

He needs to go for a bit. He needs to sort some things out. When he turns around, Mark can already feel the redhead fading from his mind. 

 

Digs the drawer for a pen, rips a page off the memo pad. Winces from the noise. 

 

But it’s okay —Johnny’s still out. 

 

Starts jotting something. Grits. Scribbles it out. 

 

Maybe he should start with… 

 

Rolls his eyes, crossing it out again. Takes him about three more scratch-outs before he gets out what he wants. Shit, he should’ve just started on a new page. Forget it, he might wake him up for real, then. 

 

Folds the paper, tucking it between Johnny’s fingers by the pillow. 

 

Just when he starts to pull back, Mark decides it’s too awkward. It feels too much like a… Slowly, retrieves the note and hovers his hand, wondering where would be a better spot. Scans the guy’s whole frame, decides maybe under the pillow is best. 

 

But not all the way under —gotta leave like a corner out so he’ll be able to see it after he wakes up, right? 

 

Right then, Johnny yawns and Mark has a tiny heart attack, but then he just turns on his side to face away from him. Okay, since he’s facing that way I should probably stick the note on the other s…

 

Reaches his left arm around, hand shaking a little when he feels Johnny’s breath against his fingers as he shifts the note just half under the pillow’s edge, his other palm pressing into the mattress for support. 

 

Then his hand dips into a lax part of the bed and Mark slips, lips brushing over Johnny’s ear. Backpedals off the bed and hides underneath, heart pounding in his throat.

 

Hears some disoriented mumbling, then a quiet sigh. Another yawn. Then some more. 

 

Mark stays under the bed until he’s sure he hears Johnny’s snoring again. 

 

By the eighth flight of stairs, images of last night flood his head and Mark’s cheeks burn as hard as his forehead as his migraine returns on the sixth. 

 

...

 

Haechan squeezes the ratty pillow against his ears, breathing the smell of dandruff and scalp oil. That’s another thing the people above ground don’t know. 

 

The drilling.

 

You’d think you wouldn’t be able to hear it from all the way down here, but something about the infrastructure causes it to echo throughout the city. Invisible pipework, Flo-tech way too high-tech for detection, something makes the sound carry over like bodies of water. 

 

The drilling masks it.

 

They had no idea. The screams here were inhuman.

 

Haechan curses. Shit, why can’t ears be like eyes...?   Why couldn’t you just turn it off when you didn’t want to hear anymore? 

 

Hurls the pillow off and shoves his fingers in. Winces.

 

Feels the inside of his head stinging from both ends. Well, shit. Wasn’t the first time he jammed too far in and tore skin. S’long as he didn’t get an infection, whatever. 

 

See, this was what he was trying to figure out for the past few weeks. He’s trying to reprogram the whole building. Maybe break out a few freaks and himself after that. And he’d make way better progress if he could somehow absorb the screams into a neo-stabilizer that shifts the sound waves so they cancel out. 

 

The one on his miniPad’s too weak. It could only catch sound from one side of the room. 

 

Noise-cancelling gear does jackshit down here. The noise has an almost liquid-solid quality, like room-temp potassium. Sometimes when it’s loud enough you can’t move.

 

What he did manage to pry into was an opening. His palm-sensor located an irregularity in density along the far wall.  Just a glitch, really. But at least it’s something. 

 

There —one point two seven feet east of the south corner of the room, there’s a tunnel behind the walls. Haechan had found a twisted spoon stuck to the bottom of the drawer by the mattress yesterday and started picking in the afternoon when the screams were loudest. 

 

Flakes gave way to semi-moist plaster crumbs, then whole chunks of wall fell out until roughly a fist-sized hole materialized. Haechan had glued a net of titanium fibres over the gap and pressed his ear to surface. 

 

Running water. Laughter. Muffled birdsong. Clattering, rattling, rustling. Wind rushing into his ear.

 

He’d scratched off half the glue along the edge of the netting. Scrawled a note, coated it in spray-on plastic, slipped it through the gash. 

 

He’s not expecting anything to come back. 

 

Haechan sighs and turns on his side, pressing the pillows harder against his ears. 

 

...

 

Johnny keeps his eyes closed when he awakens. Just count backwards from a hundred, skipping by seven. Then maybe he can return to the dream.

 

Retracing his steps, he lets the sand refurnish the darkness. At first, it glows green, folding out in a grid, then the particles come together and fade to the right tone. Then he lets the waves echo in his ears again and they come back to him. 

 

He doesn’t remember the colour of the sky. But from the way the light fell across Mark’s face, he knew it was nearing evening. 

 

“You know, I used to think all beaches were the same.”

 

Something brushes against Johnny’s arm and when their damp jeans brush, he sees he’s come back too. 

 

“Well, that’s horrible, I think…”

 

“Well, I mean, it’s all just sand and water and…” Mark laughs. “-but nah, it’s different …”

 

He leans in and whispers something into Johnny’s ear. When he turns to him, Mark shakes his head.

 

“It’s nothing. It’s okay, I’ll tell you later.”

 

“Why not tell me now?”

 

“You should head back. It’s late. They’re waiting for you.”

 

“What about you?”

 

He shook his head. “-I’m not going back.”

 

When Johnny finally opens his eyes, he finds a note sticking out by the edge of his pillow. Unfolds it, rubbing grains out his corneas.

 

Yo I’m feeling hella famished, went to get a 

 

Hey it’s Mark I’m really sorry about last n i

 

Yo your Harry Potter friend is wack I 

 

You’re telling me you never seen the 

 

Yo maybe we need to talk about some thi

 

Went to the pool, I’ll be there a while if you wanna come

 

—Mark 

 

 Staggers down the stairs, after splashing cold water on his face, feeling the wind chill his bare shoulders, in nothing but boxer shorts and velcro sandals.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Nine’y-three...eigh’y-sis...uh, seven’y-nine...seven’y-oo...sixty-si— shit— !” 

 

Johnny laughs as Mark screws up for the fifth time, knocking his fist against the pillow. The guy looks at him, exasperated, staticky bangs over his eyes. Blows some hair off with the corner of his mouth.

 

“You’re being li’ so unfair,” He rolls his eyes. “-here I am, drun’ger than a fu’ing squirrel in a wine barrel and yer hoity-toity ass wants me ta coun’ from a hunnid ‘a zero with seven fu’ing skips in be’ween —jus’ ta get that…” 

 

“So you’re proving my point then, dumbass,” Johnny brushes away the strands Mark can’t get off his face. “-you’re too wasted for it.”

 

“I am not... too wayphted,” Rolls over, buries his face into the pillow. “-yer juft an affhole…”

 

“Come on, Mark...try again…”

 

“...”

 

“Hello?”

 

“...fudge you.”

 

“Keep trying.”

 

“...ughhh.”

 

“We can do it in the morning, you know.”

 

“...migh’ change my min’ in the mornin’.”

 

“I know.”

 

“And you’re fine wi’ tha’...?”

 

“I want you in your right mind, Mark,” He drags the pillow off so he can see his face. “-I want…”

 

“What? Tell me, com’on,” Fogs up his ear, snickering when he makes him jolt. “-jus’ tell me one time.”

 

“Sure,” Johnny grins, gently pushing him away. “-maybe tomorrow.”

 

“...”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“...tomorrow’s fer suckers.”

 

“Well, sucks to suck, I guess.” 

 

Mark looks at him and right before he looks like he’s gonna cry —he bursts out laughing. He’s laughing really hard, like spitting-in-your-face kind of hard and Johnny smacks his shoulder when he realizes why Mark’s laughing like this. 

 

“...man, you are like so gross.”

 

“I jus’ ‘ave an active imagination,” He snorts. “-s’called bein’, what —creative, yeah?” 

 

“Yeah, no, being horny isn’t creative.”

 

“Wanna see somethin’ creative, dickhead?” Mark snorts, not waiting for an answer. “-watch ‘is.” 

 

He pinches the tip of his ear, folding it in, then down, tucking it inside his canal. “-ohhh, ear in an ear, bishhh, how ‘bout tha’?”

 

The other blinks at him, almost amazed.

 

“What are you on …” Johnny snortles as the ear unfurls back in place. “-what was that…”

 

Uh, my own rad version of a mating dance? Clearly didn’t work on you, though, for some odd reason… Mark thinks, semi-sarcastically. Stares at his Adam’s apple as the other guy laughs on. Thinks about what it would feel like to bite down on it, just hard enough to leave a mark.

 

“You’re one of a kind, Mark,” He said after he caught his breath. “-really, I’ve never met anyone like you.” 

 

“I feel like,” The guy squints, half-seriously. “-that coul’ be an insul’ or a complimen’ dependin’ on contex'…”

 

“And so…?”

 

“So?”

 

“So what’s our context, Mark?” 

 

“Yeah, Johnny,” He grins back. “-what is our contex’...?”

 

“What do you think?”

 

“Nn, lemme see... I think…” Mark leans closer. “-I think…”

 

“Mmhm?”

 

Mark laughs.

 

“Why’re you lookin’ at me like that?”

 

“Looking at you like what?”

 

“Like that.”

 

“Like what?”

 

“Like…”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Like you…” Then he chuckles again. “-ohh, I know…”

 

“You do?”

 

“I do,” He leans close enough so Johnny can feel his breath against his mouth. “-you wanna...umm… sike— !”

 

“Oh?” Snorts. “-how did you know?”

 

Mark smiles, staying where he is. Flicks him gently in the nose and rolls away. Glances at him, snorting a couple seconds later. 

 

It takes Johnny another couple seconds to register what happened. Then he looks at him, incredulous.

 

“Did you...did you just fart …?”

 

Mark blows a raspberry and rolls off the bed. Laughs harder when Johnny joins him, gagging, on his stomach, pretending to faint from oxygen loss.

 

...

 

“Mark.”

 

“...what?”

 

“...”

 

“What?”

 

“Chicken butt.”

 

Shoves him into a bed leg, cheek pressed against the carpet, laughing again.

 

...

 

“Mark?”

 

“Nn?”

 

“Sometimes you,” Johnny mumbles, back facing him. It’s 4 am. The square of sky from the window almost looks like it’s gotten lighter. “-spend a really long time...in the bathroom…”

 

“Uh huh?”

 

“...what are you doing?” Chuckles when he thinks the other feels uneasy. “-just wondering.”

 

“It’s...it’s not really anything…” He shrugs. “-just remembering things. From before.”

 

“Could you tell me one?”

 

“Tell you one?”

 

“Yeah. Tell me something from before.”

 

Mark pauses for a while. Then he yawns and hums to himself. Turns around, sees Johnny’s still not facing him.

 

“Okay,” He said. “-lemme see...I’ll tell you about...about the time when…” Snorts softly. “-oh, yeah —that one. Okay. I’ll tell you about the water gun fight then.”

 

And that’s where he cuts. That’s where he gets to in the replay by the time Johnny reaches the bottom of the stairs. He pushes through the lobby door, refiling that day into his memo-aid as he heads down the hall to the pool. 

 

...

 

“You think you saw something in there?”

 

Johnny leaned against the worn desk by Xiaojun’s old monitor. A naked bulb burns from a wire by the air conditioning. The screen displays the beginnings of a deep int-scan, a wall of flashing text, digits and double slash colons. He smacks the side when it freezes a couple times.

 

“I think someone messed with the disk. What I saw, it didn’t make sense. Gotta be something wrong.”

 

“Looks clean so far,” Xiaojun sighs, shrugging. Squints, glancing over the gap at the door. “-what kind of stuff did you see?”

 

“It’s hard to describe. You know how you always remember the dream from the middle and then you have to work your way through either frontwards or backwards from there?”

 

“Yeah. So what happened in the middle?”

 

Johnny pauses, pressing a thumb into his temple, scanning for the replay.

 

“Hold on. Wait. Gimme a second. Okay. Okay, I think I got it.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“So...so I’m at a table inside this murky restaurant. And all the lights are coming from the tables instead of the ceiling. So all the people I do see, I can’t really see their bodies, just see their faces floating over the darkness. And okay, I’m saying it’s a restaurant —but honestly, I couldn’t tell for sure, but like I just heard people moving around setting plates of stuff on the tables, and sometimes the stuff on the plates looks like it’s moving too.”

 

Johnny sighs, pushing hair out of his eyes. 

 

“When they get to my table, they also set a plate of stuff in front of me. It looks like a disassembled grenade. Except it’s not because...it’s not entirely solid scraps of stuff —there’s soft parts too that look like, I dunno, half-formed frogs or something. They’re partially see-through and the lights on the table are playing like crazy over it like, uh, gooey disco balls. Obviously, I’m not touching that stuff. But I’m still curious, you know? So I burst one open with a fork, and then it’s like…”

 

“It looks like a diseased hand. All the fingers are still there, but you can just tell there’s something wrong with the whole thing. There’s these tiny white threads hanging between the fingers, pale like a leper’s, and then when I press the knuckles with the back of my fork, I realize what it is.”

 

“There’s no bones in the hand. But it’s not completely hollowed out either. It’s like someone replaced all the bones with like… stomach worms. The fingers have this fluidity to them and they coil and bend in ways normal fingers can’t. It’s less like a hand than a headless, muscular spider with five legs. Maybe it is a spider, I dunno for sure, but then I look past the hand and it’s connected to a wrist which is connected to the rest of the body and I realize the table isn’t a dining table, it’s an operating table and we’re in the emergency room.”

 

“But I’m looking at the door of the ER from something within the operating table. I mean, not necessarily within, that doesn’t make any sense, but it’s like I’m inside something that’s on the table and there’s a horizontal row of dark bars blocking my vision with a thicker, vertical one that runs down the middle and then I realize those are ribs ...”

 

“And I want to get outta there, obviously I wanna get out, but I know I can’t because I know the only way I’m getting out is if I shatter the ribs and I can tell that whoever this is, they’re still alive, because the organs are warm and vibrations are crawling down the esophagus. So like I’m stuck there, trapped under someone’s rib cage and all I smell is blood and poop and it’s just…” 

 

Xiaojun looks at him with sympathy as the monitor whirs behind them. The damp summer air makes the papers by his keyboard stick to his arm. He sighs again.

 

“I don’t know, Johnny, I think it was just a nightmare. I think you’re worried about something and your state of mind when you went into REM altered how you perceived the recorded dream.”

 

“Is that supposed to happen?”

 

“Again, I don’t know. I mean, this,” Points to the inserted disk with his nose. “-this is old gear, man. I started working on this like, six years ago? Our tech wasn’t the same back then. Wouldn’t be surprised if at least a couple bugs got in.”

 

“So you’re thinking there’s bugs in here.”

 

“But not exactly the ones you’re thinking of. I mean, what was the other problem you brought up, again?”

 

“That Mark and I got separated.”

 

“That Mark and you got separated…” Xiaojun turns back to his screen. “-and who exactly is Mark, anyway?”

 

“What? He’s the guy over th—

 

“-I know he’s the guy over there sleeping, Johnny. But who is he? Do you really know?”

 

“Xiaojun—

 

“-Seriously, Johnny, if he was just another guy, you would’ve kicked him out a while ago. Why’s he still here?”

 

“Xiaojun, it’s not like…”

 

“Not like what? How is he different, then?”

 

“Different? How is he different…?”

 

“Yeah, different, I mean, what makes him so—  

 

“-God, it’s not about him and how he’s fucking different —it’s about all this shit around me —I’m not like you, Xiao —I can’t just close myself off from the rest of the world and not go insane…!”

 

“You think that’s what I do? Huh? Close myself off? Is that what you think?” 

 

“I haven’t heard from you since—

 

“-Well, the world isn’t a frickin’ wish granting factory, Johnny!” He argued. “-and, sue me —that’s the only line I liked from the entire book. You think we all have time to call you —or that we’re able to? Mod-Jian’s been a dead end since three years ago —they cut all the main lines to N-city. We only have Internet for a couple hours a day, when Kun manages to position the antenna right. You wouldn’t know—living on 127 Street, heart of the damn place.”

 

“Why did the lines get cut? Why would they do that?”

 

“They forgot about us? They wanna erase us from the grid? Or maybe they’re planning another reset —who knows —who cares? All the tech we have here has been recycled and tampered with already. Damn it, Johnny, I have an old television that plays the same commercial of this Jeno kid drinking milk every half hour — 

 

 Johnny cuts him off, collapsing in laughter. Xiaojun glares at him, mouth trembling like he was about to laugh too, and continues on.

 

“No, no, no —you don’t get it —like I’m rewatching Chamber of Secrets and they’re right about to pull out the screaming Mandrakes from the pots and then it cuts to this kid running to a table to drink milk—

 

When both of them finally quiet down, Johnny wipes a couple tears from his eyes. 

 

“You know, I think I met that Jeno kid on the street some time ago. Good kid. Really grew up, though.” Had some mad guns now, that's for sure. When'd he start working out, fourteen?

 

“Of course, he’s a good kid,” Xiaojun scoffs. “-imagine drinking all that milk and becoming a bad kid...!”

 

“So all the bad guys in the world never had enough milk.”

 

“I don’t see any other explanation.”

 

And they’re laughing again. 

 

At 6 am, Xiaojun’s still thinking about this conversation as he surfs his backup tablet for LM-990802. He’d glimpsed the barcode across Mark’s ribs when they’d been flipping the room upside down back in Lan-Seu Restaurant. He hated sounding like an overbearing mom friend around Johnny, but he just wanted to make sure his friend was okay. They hadn’t seen each other in a while. 

 

Then Xiaojun squints, frowning when he opens an old link.

 

Wait. Hold on a second...

 

...

 

They had been crawling on their elbows for what felt like hours. All Ten heard was their strained breathing echoing in the tunnel and the wet granite scraping against their knees. They crawled in total darkness for so long, they’d lost all sense of direction. For all Ten knew, they’d gone in circles and returned to their origin many times now. 

 

He tries to recall how it had happened. They’d stumbled upon the guy in the bucket hat who changed his face after re-emerging from the darkness, somewhere down South Tian-seom District. He’d disappeared into the nearest sewage channel and they’d followed him, a couple dozen paces behind. At some point, they must’ve lost him. 

 

Hendery tracked Bucket Hat through the UV sensor wall he shot from his palm. It sent waves across the space ahead and returned when it caught an obstruction at the density of human skin or close carbon-synth hybrids. Very inaccurate compared to Ten’s Ono-Midori insets —they could easily end up tracking the wrong person, but the risk was much lower since the target couldn’t see them. 

 

Clearly, though, they’d lost him now. 

 

Ten started out cautious, taking most of his weight with his arms and lifting his legs as far as it stayed convenient in a cramped place as this, but now he just about dragged everything below his chest along with him against the ground.

 

A boom sounds from under his palms, the floor dipping in and Ten falters, pausing. Hendery smacks facefirst into the guy’s ass and spits, about to protest when he feels the floor warping under his own weight too. Grabs Ten’s ankle. 

 

“No, no, wait, we needa go back—

 

“-Pssh —you kidding? How long d’ya think it’s gonna take to double out to the main channel?”

 

“Didn’t you hear that noise? Floor’s not stable, we gotta move.”

 

“Quit being chickenshit —it’s probably just some echoing from the pipes or whatever—

 

“-Echoing that makes the floor bend? Jeez, Ten, you can’t be serious.”

 

“I wanna keep going, come on. Seriously, it’s not that bad, I don’t even think it’s gonna…” Wrenches free from Hendery’s grip, inching forward again. With each advancing shift, the creaking grows sharper. The other feels goosebumps prickling his throat, keeping close behind. 

 

Then the floor shrieks and Ten plummets, Hendery snatching his ankle just before he fell straight through the tear. His body swayed dangerously as Hendery struggles to keep his grip tight, other hand clutching the damp, jagged wall, hooking the toes of his Oxfords into the crevices behind him. 

 

A muted clanging sounds after the floor panel disappears below. Hendery peers down.

 

It’s at least a forty foot drop.

 

The floor glares back against Ten’s Ono-Midoris —nothing to cushion them from the fall. Ten scans a ten metre radius as blood rushes to his head —more floor with sharp shadows —locked compartments of some kind. He glances up, but the tunnel is featureless, just gruff granite all around. 

 

“W-we gotta get down,” Ten blurts out. “-y-your grip’s slipping, hurry up, hey —f-figure something out…!”

 

“Okay, okay, u-um, here —I-I can set up an-an electromagnetic trampoline with my, uh, l-laser settings,” Hendery stammers, smattering a series of numbers into his wrist with his chin, other shoulder screaming from Ten’s weight. “-b-but I need some kind of insulator to muffle the shock of us dropping at such a height…”

 

“Will spray paint do the trick?” Ten strains and unhooks a can from his belt. Tosses it up, Hendery catches it, fumbles a little. “-uh, r-rubber-nylon blend, that should hold, shouldn’t it...” 

 

Ten watches as Hendery weaves the buzzing sheet a couple inches from the open square, while he shakes the container and hazes a layer across it in a cross-hatching motion. Hendery drifts the red circle to about half a foot from the ground, hooking the can back to Ten’s belt clip. 

 

“Ready whenever you are.”

 

Ten rolls his eyes, sighing shakily, kicks his leg back. Takes one more breath and Hendery lets go, the other fanning out his arms and legs as he whizzed down. Hendery glimpses his Skittle-sized figure bounce against the red screen before he rolled off and got to his feet, shooting him the affirmative.

 

Then Hendery feels the ozone course through his spine for six terrifying seconds until he sinks into the fizzling pad and joins Ten on solid ground. Took a second to shake the nerves out his ears. 

 

“You good?”

 

“Yeah,” Scanned their surroundings, shattering and absorbing the lasers back into his palm. “-what is this place?”

 

“Beats me. Let’s get a little light in here, hmm?”

 

“Way ahead’a ya.” Casts a stream of photons across the ceiling, as a row of fluorescent bars extend off into mist. 

 

“Some kinda storage chamber, seems like,” Ten strolls over to a steel box just too high for him to see the top. Built like an isolated aircraft restroom, he yanked at the handhold, but it remains bolted shut. “-damn freezing in here.”

 

Glances at Hendery, three boxes down, picking at something caught in the hinges. Turns back to his own box, slipping behind to check out the wiring. 

 

Noticing a corner of the door peeking out, Hendery pries it open, and sneezes, fanning at the dark particles fluttering onto his shirt, gagging from the stench of burnt hair. Peers in, jaw frozen.

 

A shower of dried blood skims the far wall, behind a figure slumped against a dead console. Numerous wires laced with frost extend from the victim’s dark head, connecting him to the machine. His fingers lay frozen in mid-type. 

 

As Hendery drew closer, he feels the steel floor creaking, wires jiggling, a couple stray sparks falling from the narrow ceiling. He notices a gash in the guy’s ear, another further down, along the base of his neck, shattering his collarbone. Pieces of it stick against the keyboard. 

 

Grabs some damp tissues from his backpocket, hoisting up the guy’s head from his icy scalp.

 

He swallows, blinking. 


Mark…?

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The door clangs shut as Mark sinks down, facing the pool. Chlorine seeps into his nose, making his face itch. He feels the warm tiles against his back, palms over his eyes. A cavernous din echoes against the constant sigh of haloed water.

 

He just lets the sounds rush into his ears for a while. The darkness glows violet against his eyelids. 

 

He saw the guy again last night. Mark went in the bathroom around 1 am and when he flicked on the light, he saw him staring at him in the mirror. 

 

Same face, just much thinner, with black hair. 

 

Then he looked again and he was gone. Only saw his own reflection, blonde, grey-green bags under his eyes. A sweep of acne across his nose, otherwise the light made him look washed out. 

 

Something had twitched on his face then. Mark had leaned closer and froze. 

 

A tiny brown ant snaked out his left nostril, then slipped off down the drain. 

 

He couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night.    

 

Mark clutched his shoulders and tried to get himself to stop shaking. He’s gotta go to the hospital. He’s gotta get an X-ray, a CAT scan, or whatever the fuck people took to check if they had fucking bugs inside of them. 

 

 What if he’s not the only one? He can’t be the only one. What if Johnny... 

 

Anyhow. Now that Mark’s alone, he can finally take a better look at that microchip he first found at Johnny’s place. He’d managed to sweep it back out from underneath the fridge two nights ago with a spatula as the other guy snored in the other room. 

 

Searches for the reader slot along his temple, finger feeling for the telltale slit. 

 

No.

 

What…?

 

He can’t find it. 

 

Mark frowns, feeling the temple opposite. It’s not there either. 

 

He grits, stuffing the chip in his backpocket. Now the tiles against his back feel too cold. Mark turns and stares at his wobbly reflection. When he stares for too long, the face grins.

 

Swallows sharply, pressing his eyelids against his knees. Jams his fingers in his ears to muff the ringing.

 

When he looks up again, Mark sees a figure at the edge of the pool, a yellow skimmer rifting around. 

 

Treads over, a shiver still clinging to his arms. The guy glances over and nods, going back to his watercombing. Turquoise light bounced off his open leather jacket, a trim torso sometimes flashing into view. 

 

“Sorry —tryna get something down there. Just gimme another minute.”

 

“S’okay, no, take your time,” Mark shrugged. “-whatcha lookin’ for?”

 

“Tricky hunk of metal,” He grinned, somewhat annoyed. “-one o’ my drones flew out on me again —partly my fault, I guess, hasty programming…” 

 

“Here, lemme have a go.”

 

After a couple flubs, Mark wedges the dark, shifting mass into the net, hoisting it out and setting it by the diving board. It’s totalled. Water surges out every joint and fettered gap, causing some segments to split off, one piece drifting to Mark’s foot. He picks up the black shell, brushing a thumb over the stringy, frayed wires inside. 

 

“Probably something wrong with the hardware,” The other guy sinks down, removing a clear plastic sleeve from his jacket pocket. His chest shone with perspiration. He shakes water out of each fragment before slipping them in. “-parts date back to WWII. Must be fitted with some unabomber psyche —pre-set crashlanding, self-destructing, you know the drill…”

 

“You got into the military?”

 

“Nope. Just digging through the local junkyard, couple months ago.” 

 

“What for?” Mark laughs, joining him on the floor. Slips the black shell in his pocket. “-spying on the government?”

 

The guy laughs, adjusting his jacket with a couple squeaks. “-very funny. I just like building drones. And I’m Sicheng, thanks for asking.”

 

“Oh, crap, sorry,” Mark said, flushing. “-I always forget. Mark.”

 

“It’s okay,” He shrugs, shaking his head. “so what about you?”

 

“What about me?”

 

“Why’re you at the hotel pool at eight in the morning?”

 

Mark hesitates. Concentrates on the drone shell in his hand. 

 

“You in some kinda trouble?”

 

“I…” Mark glances at the water. “-I’m not really supposed to…”

 

“Oh. Okay. Sorry, then.”

 

“Nah, it’s okay. It’s just...it’s really...” He sighed. “-long story short, I think...I think I did something in the past...and I’ll never be able to change it.”

 

“Yeah?” The other asked softly. “-you really think so?”

 

“Yeah. I do.”

 

Sicheng smiled, glancing at the side of Mark’s back. “-you’re not from here, are you?”

 

“No. Do I...look like really different or…?”

 

“I’ve never seen anyone here with your hair. It’s so strange —the colour —did you get it done somewhere?” 

 

“Oh, no —uh, actually I’m naturally blonde, haha. Maybe it, uh, doesn’t match my eyes…?”

 

“No, it’s not your…” He pauses and looks uncomfortable. “-never mind. Whatever. Don’t worry about it.”

 

“U-um, uh, anyways, aren’t you sweating in that thing?” Mark gestures, coughing a laugh. 

 

“Yeah, it is kinda stuffy,” He hesitates, leaning the half-packed plastic sleeve along his lap. “-I have to wear the jacket, though. Sensitive skin.”

 

“Oh, no. Post-melanoma or…?”

 

“Worse,” Sicheng smiles oddly, looks to the side. “-a lot worse.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“If you,” He pauses. “if you really wanna know, I can show you.”

 

Sicheng looks at him, but Mark showed no sign of second thoughts. He sighs and slides his jacket off stiffly and turned, revealing his back. 

 

...

 

He slaps the water balloon against his chest, snorting when it jiggles, refusing to pop. Slaps it again, then again, each time laughing harder, ignoring Jaehyun’s side-eye peeking through his drenched hair, his head resting on the worn couch. Hurry up, he mutters, his own balloon already crushed in his fist. 

 

Then finally the burst —splat —droplets tickling Jaehyun’s neck, his head bouncing gently when Mark dunks down too, sighing. They stare at the sky. A seagull curves by and Mark jerks his head away from instinct, wincing. 

 

“Shut up, I thought he was gonna poop on me…!” He smacks the other on the shoulder. “-ah, jeez, my neck…”

 

“It’s called whiplash.”

 

Mark turns to him. “-for real? That’s what it is?”

 

Jaehyun snorts.

 

“What did you think it meant?” 

 

“I dunno…” He twists some of the water off of his sopping tank. “-I mean like, I heard it off of Doyoung’s older brother’s iPod last night and like it had a totally different meaning…”

 

“How’d you get Gong-hyung’s iPod?”

 

“Stole it,” Stuck out his tongue. “-while he was in the shower with his girlfriend.”

 

“Do you still have it?”

 

“Duh,” Pulls it out of his backpocket, shakes the water off, tries to click it on. Clicks it again and again, all he gets is a dark screen. “-shit. Shit, shit, shit —oh, shit —I-I think the water killed it…”

 

“You know how much that thing costs? Dude’s gonna Super Saiyan your ass straight through the North Pole.”

 

“No way,” Mark rolled his eyes. “-Gong-Myung-hyung’s way chill, he’d never do that.”

 

“Oh, you haven’t seen him when he’s mad, dude,” Jaehyun shudders. “-shoulda seen his face when Doyoung clipped his girlfriend’s butt with a frisbee last week.”

 

“Getting hit with a frisbee hurts, yo,” Mark shrugs, getting up. “-Xiaojun whapped me in the head with one yesterday when I used his wand to roast marshmallows after the radiator caught fire…” 

 

“Come on,” The other tugs him by the side of his shirt. “-I got the perfect place to hide the iPod.”

 

Mark stumbles over the wobbly path of forested shale, Jaehyun gripping his wrist, their squishy sneakers leaving streaks along the slabs. They’re just under three miles from the main cabin. Flashes of green fill the edges of their vision. Something scrapes the back of Mark’s neck and he smacks it, his palm coming away with the torn wings of a maple seed. 

 

He smells it before he looks up. Jaehyun nearly slips when Mark stays rooted in his spot, turning back and glaring at him. 

 

“Come on! It’s right over there.”

 

Mark squints at the greying roof of the battered outhouse partially hidden in the trees. A single yellowed window sticks out from the side, darkened along the edges with what looked like dead mosquitoes.

 

“Oh, hell nah, I ain’t goin’ in there. Smells nasty.”

 

“Which’s why it’s the perfect place, man. Nobody, let alone Gong-hyung’s, gonna go lookin’ for his ‘Pod in there.”

 

“Can’t we just leave it here? Hyung wouldn’t be dumb enough to go any farther.” 

 

“What if he does?”

 

“He won’t.”

 

“How do you know?”

 

“I just know.”

 

“What?” Jaehyun smirks. “-you aren’t scared, are you?”

 

“What, no! I’m thirteen, already. I’m just, I’m just grossed out,” He scoffs. “-there’s a difference.”

 

“I’ve been in there before,” The other boy brags. “-’cause I’m not chicken like you. So I went in and you know what I saw?”

 

“W-What...?”

 

“I’m not telling you. You have to go in with me. Then you have to promise to keep it a secret.”

 

Mark’s wrist trembles under Jaehyun’s grip. He looks at him uneasily. 

 

“Is...is it a really bad thing?”

 

“I’m not sure. It’s always changing,” Leans into his ear. “-you see a lot of things in there. Only you’ll know whether it’s good or bad.”

 

“I...I don’t get it. That doesn’t make any sense…”

 

“It’ll only make sense if you go in.” Grins. “-so. You going in?”

 

“Well…”

 

“You should go,” Jaehyun said. “-if you run away, I’ll tell Gong-hyung about the iPod.”

 

“That’s not fair.”

 

“Of course it’s fair. You stole it. It’s your fault it’s broken,” Pinches his wrist with his grip. “-honestly, you owe me one. You’re lucky I didn’t tell on you the minute you showed me the dumb ‘Pod.”

 

“You wouldn’t do that. Friends don’t snitch.”

 

“I’m not friends with wimps. You don’t go in there, you’re on your own, then.” 

 

“You’re stupid,” Mark mutters, voice wavering. Glances over at the peeling roof. “-fine. I’ll go in. Stop looking at me like that —I’ll kick your saggy ass down the toilet hole, I swear.”

 

Jaehyun snorts, yanking him along. “-I dare you.”

 

When they reach the dangling door, Mark sinks to his knees, shaking his head. 

 

“I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t do it —don’t make me go in there,” He squashes his nose with a fist, the stench making his eyes water. “-forget it, I can’t, I can’t, g-gonna pass out…”

 

"Mark."

 

"Please. I can't do it," He covers his face. "-no, p-please don't make me go in there..."

 

The other lets go of his wrist and sank down beside him. Squeezes his shoulder, sighing.

 

“Okay. If you really don’t want to go, you can just stay here. I’ll toss out the iPod for you.”

 

“W-what about afterwards? You-you said I owe you one…” 

 

“I didn’t mean it,” Jaehyun glared at the wasp crawling on his shoelace. “-yesterday Doyoung called me a pussy ‘cause I always do whatever he says. But if I don’t, then I’m scared he won’t like me anymore.”

 

“Do you like him or something?”

 

“Kind of. I don’t know,” Fluttered his fingers at the wasp, gritting when it flew onto his knuckle. “-two days ago he took me here. We went back there,” Pointed to behind the outhouse. “-and he kissed me, like on the mouth.”

 

“Yeah? How was it?”

 

“Disgusting,” He laughs, blowing the wasp away. “-not the kiss. It was okay, just really dry. ‘Cause Doyoung’s embarrassed ‘bout his teeth and all. But all I could smell was the poop —like coming right through the rickety wooden walls —I swear it went into my mouth and everything tasted like poop that day...I almost threw up in his mouth.”

 

“Ewww...that’s nasty, dude…”

 

 “And you know what happened right after?” Jaehyun continued. “-Doyoung straight up ditched me and left me here. I almost cried, but then I turned around and there was something shiny inside this hole in the wall. So I used this metal fork I stole from the pantry and ripped open an even bigger hole and went in. That’s why I came back late for kitchen duty —it took hours.”

 

“What did you see?”

 

“Come on —I can show you. You won’t believe me if I tell you.” 

 

One foot already inside the torn cavity, Mark looks back towards the trees, taking one last breath of semi-fresh air. He grinds his teeth and lets the other tow him into the dark shack. Four spokes of sun illuminate the damp floorboards, and a dimmer glow comes down from the mosquito-infested skylight. 

 

Jaehyun pulls him right to the edge of the rusted latrine, pointing to the flashing water several meters below. Mark crushes his nose, breathing into his sweaty palm.

 

“Look. Down there. Do you see it?” 

 

“W-what is it?”

 

“Look —there’s pictures moving down there.”

 

“It’s, it’s just the water...I can’t see anything.”

 

“Look harder. Over there, in the corner —it’s a tiny person moving.”

 

“Oh, wait, wait —I think I see it,” Mark squinted, leaning closer. He still couldn’t see anything but he thought if he agreed, they could get out of here before he passed out. He flung his head up to escape the reek, then froze when he saw it. 

 

He nudged Jaehyun’s elbow, pointing to the ceiling. 

 

Four flatscreens hitched together showed different parts of their summer camp. One showed the main cabin area, with the other kids sitting in a messy circle around the empty campfire. Another showed the main kitchen, then the basement where the staff slept. 

 

Mark points to the fourth screen, dimmer and grainier than the rest. Two figures sat hunched in fold-up chairs, something dark bound around their waists. Their skin is flushed and dark stains soak the front of their shirts.

 

The camera zooms in, cutting off at just below their chests. Most of their faces are still in shadow. A bright pink key strap hung from the neck of the woman on the screen. Jaehyun lets go of Mark’s wrist. 

 

“Th-that’s my mom,” He said. “-l-look under the key strap, there’s something gold sparkling —that’s Mom’s swan necklace —the, the one she found on the beach last year, w-when she went for a walk by herself i-in the..."

 

“Hey, hey, maybe it’s not—

 

“-It’s her, it’s her, it’s her —it’s definitely her —!” Jaehyun cried. “-you think I don’t know what my damn Mom looks like?!” Grips Mark’s shoulders, trying to control his voice when he sees that he scared him. “-we gotta get outta here, Mark. Y-you saw what’s happening up there —I didn’t see it when I went here yesterday, but I see it now and I know.”

 

“Know what? What do you know?” Glares at him, still scared. 

 

“They’re trying to kill us in here. People only tie other people up if they wanna kill them soon. You wanna stay here and get tied up?”

 

“N-no…”

 

“Then come on, Mark —let's get the fuck outta here!” 

 

As they sprinted through the trees, their shins getting scraped by stray branches and leaves, Mark’s lungs feeling like they’ll implode, he glanced at the other who had tears in his eyes. 

 

“I-I don’t g-get it —wh-where —are we —gonna go?” 

 

But he doesn’t answer him, and then the tips of the trees get eaten away by static and the soil glitters and the screen goes black. 

 

Xiaojun leans back, sighing at the dark monitor, turning to see Jungwoo biting his nails and Doyoung chewing on the plastic nozzle of his taro jelly drink. Jungwoo stops when he catches Xiaojun looking, Doyoung keeps chewing. 

 

“Where’d you get this?” He demanded, sucking the last of the jello before flattening the packet and tossing it into the wastebasket.

 

“It’s a video recording segment on this disk called ‘Switch’ —it’s from the pack of disks Johnny gave me to scan —he wanted me to look at ‘Simon Says’ specifically, but I got done early, so I decided to check the others out.”

 

“I don’t get it, though,” Jungwoo piped up, flicking his nail shavings to the floor. “-how did this get recorded? Was there someone stalking all of us while we were in that camp?”

 

“It’s possible, or the whole place was surveilled ‘cause someone was fucking paranoid,” Doyoung shrugged. “-also, fuck Jaehyun —I’m not embarrassed about my teeth anymore.”

 

Xiaojun rolled his eyes and stared at the ceiling. “-is that the only thing you focused on? Did you see what was on the screens? The four screens in the shed?”

 

“Yeah, some people who looked like Jaehyun’s parents apparently were tied up—

 

“-Hey, but weren’t you the one who made these disks, Xiaojun?” Jungwoo frowned, pressing a cold hand over his hot forehead. The rangy lights were overwhelming in here. “-how’d you not know about any of this?”

 

“Jaehyun was the one who found the original recordings,” He said. “-look, I know it’s all jumbled up, but the whole thing happened six years ago...and a lot of stuff happened since then so I hardly ever think about it now, but when I saw this last night it’s like everything just came flooding back, you know?”

 

“So what came back?” Doyoung ejects the disk and picks it out, slipping it into the pack. Flips through the others, still frowning. “-what do you remember now?”

 

“It’s really weird. But you gotta believe me when I tell you this —there’s something abnormal with those disks,” He pulled out the white ‘Switch’ one again. “-Johnny was right when he told me there was something up about them. He just didn’t know what it was.”

 

"So what is it?"

 

"I don't know if it's the same thing for all of them," Xiaojun stared at the white disk. "-but this one is packed with hidden portals. There's videos inside of videos. I paused it last night at a shot zoomed in on Jaehyun's face —there was a small blue rectangle on his jaw. I thought it was a glitch but I clicked it and it led me to another video."

 

"Yeah? And what was that?"

 

"It showed him years later in my garage when we were tinkering around with those microchips —and then there was a red rectangle in the background by the shelves. I clicked on that and it took me to footage of Jaehyun handing me the drive containing all the original camp recordings. I saw myself plugging it into my monitor —and I recognized the camp in a second." 

 

"And that's not the only thing," Xiaojun takes out a red-blue disk labelled ‘Limitless’. “-see the aluminum seal over here?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Completely clean. No scratches. Most of the disks in here have never been used.” Slips the two disks back in. “-when Johnny handed me the pack of these —only ‘Simon Says’ had been read. He hadn’t touched any of the other ones since he got them.” Held up ‘Switch’. “-he had no idea about this.”

 

“But you said he went inside the program. How come we didn’t go into this one?” 

 

“I have my monitor programmed to scan only. You never know what kinda trouble you can run into with these old files. You could get trapped in one forever if it malfunctions.”

 

“So why’re you showing us this now?” Jungwoo gets up and stretches, jolting when his hand hits a swaying body strung with chains. “-jeez, I can never get used to your funky decor…”

 

“Brings back memories, huh?” Doyoung nudged him, grinning. “-all those Fridays when we had to dress up in this shit if we couldn’t tell it apart from human skin. Freaky shit.”

 

“What did you call this place again?” Jungwoo turns to the other. 

 

“The Bacon Room,” Xiaojun winked. “-you know, Francis Bacon —the guy who painted all those twisted portraits post-World War two.”

 

“You creepy, creepy guy,” Doyoung snorted. “-isn’t it also a cannibal reference? You’re horrible.”

 

“Speaking of horrible, guess who showed up with Johnny last night,” He flipped open the mini fridge and tossed them cans of Smirnoff sangria. “-Mark Lee.”

 

Doyoung coughed a laugh. “-not funny. You really gotta work on your jokes nowadays.”

 

“I’m not kidding. It was him.”

 

“Are you sure?” Jungwoo set his drink on the folded tennis table. “-maybe it was just someone who looked a lot like him.”

 

“No, it was him. It was him, I’m sure of it.”

 

Doyoung took a long swig and set his can by the pack of disks, running a hand through his hair.

 

“Mark went missing six years ago. We never saw him since that damn camp. Just a couple days ago, I didn’t even remember who he was, but then I went on the net and found him on the list of names of people who disappeared at Sevens Point.” He turned to Jungwoo. “-you were right, he did go there. But somehow, I still don’t remember his face. Maybe I’ve been staying over at Jaehyun’s place too long, I don’t know—

 

“-You’ve been staying over at Jaehyun’s place?” Xiaojun squinted. “-how did you even—

 

“-I had to flip Google Maps upside down about sixteen times and then override my whole server system to find his lot, believe me. Guy’s paranoid as fuck right now, pays a bunch of cops to guard his place.”

 

“I wish I knew what happened then,” Jungwoo shook his head, sitting back down by the monitor. “-at some point, he and Mark disappeared for ten days from the camp. I don’t know if the footage is right when they left or when they came back for a little while. But around the time they really disappeared, I left too.”

 

“Yeah, I remember that now,” Doyoung punched his shoulder lightly. “-you stole one of the staff bikes during break and I caught you sneaking off and forced you to take me too —crammed inside that wire basket at the back.”

 

Both of them turn to Xiaojun who sips his drink, glancing out the gap in the door. He shook his head. 

 

“It’s okay. It wasn’t that bad. Johnny and I stayed a while longer, then we left too,” Pinched the bridge of his nose. “-but Mark. I’m telling you, he came back with Johnny last night —neither of them remember each other —but that’s not the thing.”

 

“Yeah? What was it?”

 

“I don’t think Mark is Mark. It’s not him. I don’t know whose with Johnny right now, but it’s not the Mark from camp. His hair is all different—

 

“Jeez, people can dye their hair, Xiaojun…” Jungwoo scoffed. “-you think I was always a golden coconut?”

 

“-I’m serious, I don’t know who this Mark is. I tried telling Johnny about it last night and he just got angry at me and started yelling random crap —whoever this Mark is, he’s got him good, man.”

 

“They slept together already, didn’t they,” Doyoung frowned. “-basic biochemistry —you have sex and then all this attachment goo-goo follows after.”

 

Jungwoo nodded.

 

“So that’s why you get so defensive whenever I say Jaehyun’s trying to mind-control you.” 

 

“...shut up.”

 

...

 

When Johnny finds Mark, he’s standing under the showers, leaning his face in, letting his hair flop against the spray. Droplets gather and roll down his shoulder blades, his back contracting as he runs fingers through his soaked scalp. 

 

As he lets the strands slip off his palms under the wash, Mark turns and starts. Water shoots up his nose and he gasps, one hand over his face, the other blinding clawing for the shower dial. Johnny knocks his hand away and switches it off, squinting as the edge of his hairline gets drenched too. Guides the guy to the bench, a damp arm steadying his shuddering frame. 

 

“Shit, next time I’ll say hi first, I guess…” He sighs as Mark hunches, sputtering onto the tiles.

 

“Jus...ngh, kugh,” Wheezes, eyes watering. “-g-got a li’l... suh — scared, s’all…”

 

“Scared, huh…” Brushes some of the water off his brow with a thumb. “-what for?”

 

The drenched blonde hacks a few more rounds before he gathers his breath. 

 

“Nothing. I…” Moves his eyes down Johnny’s bare torso. 

 

“Yeah, I just rushed down here,” He chuckles, face a bit flushed. “-didn’t bother throwing anything on —I thought maybe something happened.”

 

“Something happened?”

 

“Did something happen?” Looks at him carefully. “-seriously, Mark, are you really okay? You looked at me like I was some kind of…”

 

“No, I mean, it’s not…” He sighed, creasing his brow, staring at the farther tiles. “-it’s not like it’s you —you’re normal, you’re all normal, but you…”

 

“I…? I what?” Johnny asked. Then his expression softened. “-shit, is this about last night —Mark, I can promise you, I didn’t do anything, we didn’t do anything, we did nothing. We just talked and then you fell asl—

 

“-No, I know, I know nothing happened —that’s not what I’m talking about…”

 

“Then what is it? What’s going on?”

 

He stared at his knees, digging his palms into the bench. 

 

“Those things I saw in the REM room —that dreaming shit, it’s not going away —I’m still seeing it, I’m still seeing it now.”

 

“What do you mean? Like you keep thinking about it?” The other asked. “-well, what do you want me to do? Tell you to stop? Mark, I get that it’s bugging you a lot, but what am I supposed t—

 

“-You don’t get it, you don’t really get it, Johnny. It’s not that I keep thinking about it —I’m seeing it, I’m literally seeing it—

 

“-Are you seeing it right now

 

“-No, I’m not seeing it right now —but I saw it last night

 

“-Well, then what did you s—

 

“-That I wasn’t me —!” Mark sputtered. “-I looked into the mirror and it wasn’t me that looked back.”

 

“Mark."

 

"...what?"

 

"Look, I really don't wanna be that person, but you know you had a lot to drink last night…”

 

“So that means everything I’m saying is bullshit? You’re not gonna take me serious just 'cause I—

 

“-Woah, okay, chill —I never said anything about bullshit —I’m just saying if you weren’t completely sober, then maybe—

 

“-Maybe I imagined it?” He finished. “-well, so what, then? You imagine things too. You know what, you probably imagine things more than I do.”

 

“I imagine things? I'm imagining things. Okay, Mark, fine. Tell me, then —what have I been imagining?”

 

“Practically everything.”

 

“Practically everything?”

 

“You heard what I said.”

 

“So give me an example.”

 

“I don't know. Like maybe you’re imagining that it’s your world,” Mark said. “-like you think just because you’re so used to hiding your own feelings, other people should too —otherwise there’s something wrong with th—

 

“-Where’s all this coming from? Mark, what did I —what is this “used to hiding my own feelings bs” like what’re y—

 

“-So you’re gonna act like you don’t remember?” He cut in. “-you’re just gonna act like you forgot what happened in the cab, last night?”

 

“Are you actually mad at me for giving you alcohol? Are you fucking serious? Mark, I didn’t know what else to do, you were frickin’ crying like—

 

“-Crying...? Crying.” The android repeated. “-you...you’re like for real right now,” The heat in his voice went out. After that, there was nothing, just sound. “-you really don’t remember.”

 

“What, Mark? What don’t I remember?” 

 

“I never cried. I was fine. It was you. You were crying.”

 

He brushed the remaining droplets off his forehead while the other said nothing. Mark sighed.

 

“I don’t know how long you’ve been doing this. But have you ever thought maybe the person you remember yourself to be is different from who you actually are?”

 

He said nothing. Then the hollowed echo of the pool took over for a while. For a while, they even noticed the rumble of the generator.

 

“How am I supposed to answer that?” Johnny asked. “-aren’t we just all we remember?”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Um,” Jaehyun nudged his shoulder with his nose. “-what’re you thinking about?”

 

Doyoung turned over in the cramped bunk, frowning. “-nothing. Just stuff.”

 

The other boy blew air from his lower lip, getting on an elbow and stuck a finger out the tear in the damp netting of the window. A moth batted against his nail and he felt the furry brush of its antenna before it flew off towards the nearby gaslight. 

 

He wipes the residue against the wall, looking at Doyoung staring at the ceiling. Doyoung had a short temper. Now Jaehyun’s running through his mind all the possible things he might’ve done to make him upset.

 

“What’re you looking at?”

 

Doyoung turns to him again, pinching his cheeks with one hand, turning his face up.

 

“Look. Do you see it?” 

 

“See what?”

 

“Look really carefully. See the bumps all over the ceiling?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Tell me when you start seeing a face.”

 

Jaehyun blinked at him. Crickets and mosquitoes chattered outside. 

 

“Is there supposed to be a face? Does that mean there’s a...g-ghost in here…?”

 

No, you dumbass,” He rolled his eyes. “-it means you’re a person. A normal human being.”

 

“Normal human beings see ghosts…?”

 

“It’s not a ghost, oh my God,” Doyoung sighed. “-apparently our brains are wired to see faces in everything. So if you stare at anything long enough you’ll see a face there.”

 

“Like people faces?”

 

“If you’re a person, then yeah,” 

 

“So...if I see a dog face it means I’m a…?”

 

“And if you see a refrigerator it means you’re a fridge,” Doyoung muttered, turning away. “-jeez-louise, Jaehyun, you’re no fun. Just go to sleep, I guess.”

 

A few moments later, Doyoung feels a poke on his shoulder. Turns. “-what…?”

 

“Um, not sure if it’s a face I’m seeing but, wh-what’s that weird lumpy thing over there?”

 

“Weird lumpy thing…” He trailed off when he saw it. “-shit —shit, it’s a—

 

He recognizes the tiny dark shapes buzzing, the papery exposed combs. Doyoung ducks them both under the covers, twisting his black light on. He concentrates on the cobalt rings reflecting in the other boy’s eyes. 

 

“Okay, if we just stay really quiet…”

 

“...they’ll never find us,” Jaehyun grins, chuckling at the other’s flushed face under the sheets. “-God, you were such a wuss that one time…”

 

Doyoung knocked the handheld with a sweaty knuckle, swinging the screen to rippled bars of sunlight above their heads. 

 

“And you were an idiot —people faces, really—

 

“-I pretended to be an idiot,” He snorted, bumping his nose to his, pulling the camcorder back. “-you liked me better that way.”

 

“Did I?”

 

“You can’t stand not being the smartest guy in the room. S’why you’re a loner now.” 

 

“And yet somehow, you’re still—

 

They must’ve decked that thing off the bed by then because all Jaehyun sees now is tumbled colour and flat, crunchy shuffling, then the ceremonial clonk and rattle of static. Just the barest notion of sound fizzles through and Jaehyun thinks it’s laughing or at least hopes it is. 

 

“There you are,” He looks up as Yuta sank down alongside him on the dented cement block. “-was looking for you.”

 

“Yeah? Not many people looking,” Set the Sony video camera down. “-lucky you, I guess.”

 

“What about you? You’re looking kinda rough.”

 

“Yeah, well. Side effect of not sleeping. You can really only hide it to a point.”

 

“Why aren’t you sleeping?”

 

“Are you?”

 

Yuta turned to the burning strips of linen some feet away, smiling flatly. “-that’s different. You know I had it taken out.”

 

“And how’s that been for you?”

 

“You know. There’s more hours in the day. But sometimes it doesn’t matter. You know?”

 

“Yeah. I know,” Jaehyun looks down. “-sometimes it’s just necessary.”

 

“And I can’t force it, I really can’t. It’s just…” He sighs. “-you know, I used to be able to sleep with my eyes open, so I tried that, but…”

 

“Didn’t work?”

 

“Just ended up scaring old ladies in the subway.”

 

Jaehyun snorted.

 

“Nice.” 

 

“Yeah.”

 

They’re quiet for a bit. Jaehyun picks at the exposed spikes along the underside of his Balenciaga cap.

 

“Seriously, it’s…” Yuta shook his head. “-whatever they tell you —it’s not worth it. Really, it’s not.”

 

“Not sleeping?”

 

“That and other things. You know, right now you might not like the things you remember, but…’least it’s something, right? Mess with your mind once, you’ll never get it back.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Okay, what?”

 

“Okay, nothing.” Yuta looks at him and Jaehyun turned his eyes up, corner of his mouth twitching.

 

“Sometimes I just want to be happy for once.”

 

“You will. Trust me. You will.”

 

...

 

“I've been running it through my mind constantly,” Mark said. “-there’s a guy in REM that I saw —and I think I know him. I think you might know him too. You were talking about him in the car, or someone like him and...”

 

“Yeah? What do you remember about him?”

 

“Tall...light hair...long, white fingers…” He shook his head. “-at the time, I couldn’t get a clear view of his face…”

 

“But you think you know him...or knew him?”

 

The other nodded.

 

“I feel like I knew him when I was younger. We might’ve even been friends.”

 

“Shit,” Johnny sighed. “-friends, huh.”

 

“You know how people change. Maybe he was better, then. Maybe something happened.”

 

“And you’re sure you saw this guy in REM?”

 

The android cranes his neck, staring towards the sinks by the mirrors. Picks at an invisible scab behind his ear, hand just barely shaking. Flattens his mouth.

 

“It was...it was horrifying,” Mark said. “-I was watching from a bathtub —there was a boy around my age lying unconscious there, too. He dragged him out and like jammed his whole entire hand down the kid’s throat—

 

“-Like he was trying to look for something, right?” Johnny finished. “-okay, yeah, I saw something very similar —it was probably the same guy. I was on a bed and he shoved a microchip down my throat in the same way...”

 

Mark looked down at his arms, realized he left a bunch of pink scratches along one part of his inner forearm while they were talking. He tried to shake it off, but the crawling feeling was the worst there. 

 

“What makes me feel really uneasy is I think I saw him recently. Maybe not him physically, but at least his face —like I saw his face somewhere…”

 

“Like in the news or something? Or billboards or…” Johnny frowned. “-but you just told me that you didn’t get a clear view of his face in th—

 

“-It’s a feeling, Johnny —that's the best way I can describe it,” Mark glared at him. “-you know, it’s, it’s that feeling when you’ve run into the same person twice...even if it’s from a different angle or side, you still somehow know it’s the same person.”

 

“Okay,” The other relented. Glances at his hair for a second. “-let’s say it is the same person. Then what? What does he have to do with your life or my life or anyone’s lives?”

 

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out. Isn’t that why you gave those disks to your friend to scan?”

 

“Mark, I’m getting Xiaojun to scan the floppies ‘cause I believe there’s problems in the hardware. We have no way of tracking anyone we saw in REM —they’re all recorded dreams —even if the people do exist in real life, the disks won’t tell us where they are.”

 

“Johnny—

 

“-And even if we could track him down, I don’t think we should look for him,” He furrowed his brow. “-if REM’s any indication of his behaviour, he’s probably dangerous.”

 

“So we’re just gonna forget about it. Act like REM didn’t mean jackshit.”

 

“What do you want to do, Mark? I’ve got no clue how to go on about this, honestly.”

 

“I think you’re avoiding something,” He said. “-I think something happened and you don’t want to face it.”

 

“Yeah? You think so?”

 

“I do.”

 

Johnny snorts, looking away.

 

“What’s it to you, then?”

 

With that, he got up and walked off towards the pool doors, leaving Mark alone on the benches.

 

...

 

Water swished around his ankles, green sandy water with seedy twigs, plastic strips and limp tadpoles swept up from the storm. Xiaojun grits at the sharp rocks under his feet, turning back to grab Johnny’s elbow after the guy stumbled into a slimy recess of lake moss.

 

“It’s not far. Just down the bend.”

 

Johnny squinted as the rain splintered against their backs, biting their vision. It cast a thick mist over the river, so they couldn’t see more than a few meters.

 

“You sure? You sure Mar —you sure they went that way?”

 

“Well, even if they’re not there, at least we...” 

 

“What’s this?”

 

Johnny picked up a photograph, folded at the back so it stood up by the cluttered corner of Xiaojun’s work desk. Scanning over the faces in the candied lighting, he picks out Super Corn and a marsh green Nerf gun. 

 

“Don’t you recognize it?” The other guy asked. “-look, over there, that’s you.”

 

“Yeah?” He laughs. “-how old was I? Thirteen, fourteen…”

 

“Probably thirteen. Look at us —all bratty little squirts back then.” Then Xiaojun grins. “-oh, right, there’s Jungwoo. Still a bratty little squirt right now, sometimes.”

 

“Right. Guy drops in at the most random times —I was taking a bath last week at four in the morning or something…”

 

“What were you doing taking a bath at 4 am?” He shook his head. “-are things going okay?”

 

“I don’t know. You know, I think I’m reaching that curve,” Johnny put the photo down. “-that point where you start digging around after the operation’s been biting into your brain a few years…”

 

“Yeah? You thinkin’ of tracing the threads?”

 

“It’s not me —I was doing fine and then I met this...this guy who’s going around...mixing up my perspective on things…”

 

“Mark, isn’t it,” Xiaojun fiddled around with the pack of disks, tucking them into the steel drawer. Mumbles quiet enough the other can’t hear. “-it’s always been Mark, huh.”

 

“It’s funny, you know,” Johnny stares out the clouded window by the tangy bulb. “-I think they sneaked in a thread where I’m convinced I met him...it’s been eating at me for days now.”

 

“That’s odd,” The other brushes some dust off his stained keyboard. “-why on earth would they do that…”

 

“Whatever.” Johnny gestured to Mark asleep by the tires. “-he’s been out long enough, maybe we should —actually could I use your bathroom for a sec?”

 

“Yeah, no, definitely. Down the hall, take left and then—

 

He bursts over the surface of the water, gasping, shaking the droplets from his eyes. Gripping the ridge of the deep end, Johnny looks out to the wall of windows on his left, the sun glowing sparse, setting decades of scratches and smudging alight. He thinks he sees a kid peering through the glass, but a moment later, he sees it’s just a kicked-over wastebasket by the beams. 

 

Johnny lets his legs hang loose in the drift for a while, elbows planted over the ledge. Something’s happened since then. Visitation's always been a pain, but somehow, some point, he was gonna arrive here, wasn’t he?

 

...

 

Somewhere down the line, Mark supposes, he mixed up the drilling he’d kept hearing in Johnny’s apartment, then in the streets, then the in bathroom vents at 1 am, with the sound of sirens in his head. All this noise keeps pouring into his skull and deciphering’s starting to get blurry. 

 

He wonders when he’ll be able to tell Johnny about it, the confusion, the dust and all that. He wants to wait until things have quieted down, but he wonders if that’s ever really gonna happen. More noise. It’s always been like that, just more, more noise until he thinks his head’s gonna split. 

 

Something itches along the crease of his elbow and Mark looks down, squishing an ant curled up there. Flicks the specks onto the floor, frowns at the tiny red rash now in its place. 

 

He glares at it, scratching until a bead of blood rests on the bump. Then he looks away, leaning his head on the wall, just waiting, or maybe just hoping. 

 

...

 

“Jeez,” Johnny sighed after he returned. “-you’re getting a little cold there, huh?” 

 

“Yeah,” Runs his hands over his arms. Pauses at the same spot he picked at earlier. “-weird. Usually don’t get cold.”

 

Stands some ways apart from him, looking somewhat apologetic.

 

“Want me to run upstairs for a jacket?” 

 

“No,” Mumbles into his knees. “-just...shower with me, for a bit.”

 

“Okay,” Steadies his still half-hungover body towards the stalls. “-let’s go get warm together.”

 

...

 

Lucas leans down, nearly pressing his nose to the curious growths before him. A row of handsome eyeless faces grew from the soil, shimmering in the tech-greenhouse haze. Kun stops and turns, nods. 

 

“That’s a strange one,” He runs a finger down the robust nose bridge. “-we call it the J-021497 —the Jae strain, for short. Probably something funny in the soil. They never told us the specifics.”

 

“Jae strain?”

 

“Yeah,” Kun brushes the dark grains, checking the dampness. “-know him —Jaehyun?”

 

“Should I?” Lucas squinted at the glowing skin. 

 

“If you don’t,” Kun sprayed electrolyte-infused oil at the aisle of exposed lungs drooping from the glassy east shelf above the cable-grown livers pulsing in the long cylindrical tank that wrapped around the whole room. “-things’ve really worked out for him, then.”

 

Lucas pinches his nose at the steel rack lined with tomato stakes, a full coil of intestines wrapped around each pole, feeding themselves with their own wastes piled high in the clay carton below. 

 

“Guy’s not too bad in the face, I guess.”

 

“Right,” He laughs. “-it’s what got him there and back again. Part ways, anyways.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“That face,” Kun glances merger-wise. “-he's seen some things no one should ever see.”

 

“And now you guys’ve turned a market for them?”

 

“It seems,” Kun marked a tray with a best before sticker before turning around. “-something going on aboveground? I was kinda apprehensive when Yuta ordered three hundred shipments last week.”

 

“That Yangyang kid knows more about it than I do,” The other shrugged. “-Jungwoo got me to check up on him for some kinda operation...with Ten or…?”

 

“Oh, him,” Three layers of exhaustion seem to coat his voice. “-Taeyong’s business. You’re gonna have to ask him later, if you wanna know anything.”

 

Lucas fumbles with a glass block of mummified nerve endings. It shatters across the floor and Kun sighs as a mini roller bot hums in from under the humidifiers to sweep it up. The taller guy laughs, ears flushing.

 

“Oops. My bad.”

 

In another corner of the chamber, Yangyang peers over a carpet of tongues in various stages of development. Instead of soil, they perched in a black gelatinous mixture that gave off the smell of mosquito coils. After arriving at the main house, Taeyong had disappeared towards one of the geodesic domes by the marshlands.  

 

A boom from the pipe in the corner behind them, makes his shoulder jump. Yangyang leans over and flicks the flap open, picking out the damp item. 

 

It curled in on itself and when Yangyang squinted at it closer, he realized it was a sprayed-on note. 

 

if you get this just saying hi. how is it down there? i heard laughing and rattling and water...is your washing machine broken? 

-half-sun99

 

He flipped it over and saw the other side was blank. Shrugging, he grabbed a Sharpie from the nearby shelf and began writing. 

 

...

 

“How...how do you know,” Mark stares at the drain swirling by his feet. “-whether something’s real or not?”

 

“Mm?” Johnny has his hands in his hair, busy trying to untangle his strands. “-what do you mean? What kind of real?”

 

“Like memory real. Sometimes I remember things...and I’m not sure, you know? I’m not sure if it really happened...if I really did what I did.”

 

Johnny pauses, picking at melted dandruff along his scalp. Sighs.

 

“That happens to everyone though, right? Have you ever met someone who was completely sure about what they remembered?”

 

“But what do I do?” He pressed. “-how do I figure out if something’s real or not?”

 

“Nothing’s really real, Mark,” He said quietly. “-there’s less real and there’s real enough.”

 

“What makes it real enough?” Winces when Johnny gets a particularly tough strand. “ -oww —Joh —can you be like gentler or—

 

“-Something like that,” He chuckles. “-that’s real enough, right? Enough so you can feel it.”

 

“But what about…”

 

“Memory-wise? Can’t help you there. You need to decide for yourself,” Johnny said. “-me, I decide if something’s real based on what I get in return for believing.”

 

“So like, good things?”

 

“Not always.”

 

Mark pauses.

 

“You think bad memories help you more?”

 

“Sometimes.”

 

“Okay,” Then Mark shouts when Johnny gets at an even tighter knot. “-shit —are you like trying to make me—

 

“-Trying to make you remember this is real,” He snorts. “-don’t wanna let you doubt for a second this isn't some dream.”

 

“You...thirty foot tall...sadistic...gopher…”

 

Gopher…?” Johnny scoffs, pressing his face into his hair. Spitting into the drain, seconds later. “-aw, eughh —pleugghhhh…

 

“Wh…”

 

“Shush,” Wipes his lip with the back of his hand. “-was busy kissing your little boo-boo just to get wet hair in my mouth…”

 

“...that’s what you get.”

 

“Oh, he talks back now, huh?” Johnny tugs him closer, getting his head back in the spray. “-what if I kissed your hair so hard it fell off and you went bald, ahh—

 

They’re laughing, struggling and shouting as Mark tries to twist the water off just to have Johnny flip it back on. 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Whatcha got in there?” Ten peers into the compartment. “-oh, shit. Right where they last left him.”

 

Hendery turns. “-you know him?”

 

“'Course I do,” The other goes over, probing the icy wires. “-nobody knows about it now, but Markie got involved with some pretty macro-level shit, few years back.”

 

“And he’s dead…?”

 

Ten shrugged. 

 

“Dunno. Plug-in facils are pretty wack. Who knows, maybe he’s just sleeping.”

 

Hendery eyes the shattered collarbone again, unconvinced.

 

“You mean like cryo?”

 

“Got another word for it?” Ten sinks down, digging through the mess of coloured cables by Mark’s legs below the console. Laughs. “-wanna get him above ground and see if he “wakes up” ?”

 

“No, thanks,” His gaze returns to the spray of blood across the far panel, folding his arms over his stomach. “-one Mark on this planet’s enough for us to handle, I think.”

 

Ten didn’t seem to have heard him. He’d found the main adapter and already started switching up the plugs. “-anyways, it’s great we’re here. You could say Mark’s little “break” leaves us at a standstill. So I’m taking over. It’s my era now, bitch.”

 

“What are you planning…?” 

 

“A temporary changeup,” He winked. “-nothing our world can’t handle.”

 

“You’ve done this before?”

 

“Nope. He has,” Points at the catatonic Mark with his thumb. “-you okay back there? You want some air?”

 

Hendery glances at his reflection in the adjacent panel, realizing he’s hunched down, and looking pale and green in the face. He threw up this morning and barely slept, but said nothing. He shook his head, despite feeling tremors right above his knees. 

 

“Nah, I’m good, I’m good, seriously, don’t—

 

Ten drops the cables, striding over, arms crossed.

 

“Pull up your shirt.”

 

“Wh—

 

“-Pull up your shirt before I slice it with laser vision.”

 

Hendery looks at him oddly, drawing up his layered jerseys. Ten leans in, neon surging out his eyes, skimming down the other’s torso. He feels a faint buzz and then it’s over. 

 

“Food bug. Knew it,” Blonde streaks flashing as he flipped them away. “-been messing around UZ, haven’t you?”

 

“You too?”

 

“Oh, fuck, no,” Ten tosses him a small plastic bottle of amber-green fluid. “-you couldn’t get me to eat fruit with a gun to my head. Keeps me safe around here, though.”

 

“What’s this?”

 

“Gator spit,” Tosses another bottle, orange, rattling with tablets. “-what everyone calls it. Insanely powerful detoxifier —kills the midges in hours. Take it with these so you don’t shit acid.”

 

“Thanks?”

 

“When you gotta go —just do it in the trash,” He shrugs. “-too cold in here, so zero smell.”

 

“Right.”

 

Hours later, Hendery returns, covered in sweat, but visibly healthier-looking. 

 

“How’d it go?”

 

Glares mildly at him. “-I basically still shit acid.”

 

“But they’re gone now, aren’t they?”

 

“Sure hope so.”

 

“Oh, they are, trust me,” Ten turns back to the cables. “-now come help me out with these cords…”

 

...

 

“Yooo, wicked —we almost missed it…”

 

Mark staggered through the sliding doors, dragging Hyuck just as they clamped over his left ankle. Guy slams his elbow against the glass twice and his foot just makes it through. 

 

“Shit, now we gotta wait…”

 

“Great, so gimme time to catch my breath, dipshit,” Haechan pants, gripping the nearby bar, flaring his brows at annoyed passengers. “-not everyone’s got titanium lungs, yeah?”

 

Mark laughs. “-right.”

 

Couple minutes later, they’re rushing to the head of the sub, squeezing through the far door just as it pulled into the next station. A slew of bodies flow in, but they just let the wave drive them through and they’re back out running again. 

 

Soon the steel white-red hull alongside them flew back into motion and Haechan cranks his legs into overdrive, fearing the line’ll overtake them, snatching Mark by the shoulder sleeve when he falls back —practically hurling him through the doors, next stop. 

 

Mark’s laughing and gasping, crashing sideways into the seats, one of his Nikes twirling off and bouncing against someone’s dented tuba. Hyuck apologizes to the lady, slipping her a couple burger coupons, letting his doe-eyes do the rest of the work. They joke around for a bit before Mark gets hit in the hip with the sneaker.

 

“Nice catch.”

 

“Asshat,” Mark stuck his toes into the shoe, pressing his chin into Hyuck’s shoulder as the train restarted. “-what’s the point of racing this thing again?”

 

“No point,” The other leaned his head against his, ignoring his sweaty ear. “-or maybe it’s every point, you feel?”

 

“Yeah, uh huh,” Mark looks ahead, glancing down, still heaving a little. “-realizing the uh, inevitability of pointlessness in the um, circle of life and whatnot?”

 

Turns to him.

 

“Can I get a l’il of whatever you’re on, Simba?”

 

Mark flushes and Hyuck yawns, smushing his nose against the guy’s tuna-stained windbreaker.

 

Haechan spies a tinny clattering coming from the far wall and notices a shard knocking at the netting he stuck on yesterday. The draft he felt earlier must’ve returned and he went over to pick the piece out.

 

Sometime last year, a thread slipped through. Haechan never fought it. They were like waking dreams, anyways. And he’d never admit it, but he missed Mark too.

 

Recognizes the blue haze of his scrawled note, heart sinking for a moment, until he flipped it around.

 

Snorts, the yang^2 guy took up the whole side. Now where was that Bic pen of his, again?

 

 

...

 

“I need you to take me seriously. Like I really need you to believe me.”

 

“Okay,” Johnny nodded, the two of them heading down bleary, vacant 6th Neo-Nanxi street. Shop windows flush ginger-yellow in the sun. “-I will. I promise.”

 

“You don’t know how hard I have to try to get people to...” Mark glares at the candy wrappers caught in the curb grate. “-sometimes I just feel like...fuck, never mind. Look, I...”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Well, I actually…” He pauses. “-you know, actually, I’ve been thinking about what you said earlier.”

 

“Okay. And so?”

 

“And so I don’t know,” Mark shook his head, shoving his hands deeper in his hoodie pockets. “-did you really mean that? About memories?”

 

“Which part?” 

 

“You said we aren’t anything without them, or something like that…”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“You really believe that?” 

 

Johnny paused, pulling them down a different path when he caught wind of some nasty commotion ahead. Something burning, smashed glass, faint chloroform. Angry voices, distant clanging, rattling, thundering. Sour dust, plastic shreds.

 

“I mean, you don’t have to agree with me, obviously,” He said, climbing the steps of a frosted overpass. “-but come on, think about it. Where you would be without your memories?” Laughs. “-what if you forgot me every morning?”

 

“That’s not fair.” Snorts, humorless. “-what kind of situation is that?”

 

“You’d think that,” Shrugs. “-but some people live like that. They do, so many of them now —one needle in the morning, one in the evening. Just clockwork.” 

 

“Not possible,” Mark argues. “-how can they hold jobs if they erase each day before? You couldn't function without memories, right?”

 

“Well, your procedurals and emotionals are stored differently." Picks a coin from the railtop, sketches it along the surface. "-the yellow ones just dull emotionals. People play around with the formula too, try to dull negative triggers.”

 

“Does it work?”

 

“I don’t know. It’s just what I’ve heard, from transferees." Tosses the coin off. "-you think life should be that way?”

 

“So that’s what you’re saying?” Mark frowns, brushing his finger over a smudge of glitter along the bar. “-you know, despite that you yourself slung your memories into the gutter.”

 

He notices the twinge of pain in Johnny’s jaw at that, but he doesn’t apologize. Let him take it, he must’ve thought it through himself thousands of times, right? 

 

“You…” Johnny sighs, as they descended to the streets again. “-you know, sometimes you...you really can’t anticipate the consequences of your decisions, alright?”

 

“Are you telling me that or are you telling yourself?”

 

“Mark,” He glared at him softly. “-why does it sound like you’re blaming me for something?”

 

“It’s just kinda hard to indulge people who don’t follow their own advice, you know?”

 

Johnny grins ruefully. “-okay. Fine. I’ll take that.”

 

“So basically, you’re saying,” Mark began after a while. “-having memories makes you a person.”

 

“Hey...maybe it’s not exactly...” 

 

“But that’s what you’re saying.”

 

“Mark…”

 

“Listen to yourself. And answer me, Johnny,” He glared. “-just answer me —does having memories make you a person?”

 

“Mark—

 

“-Look, I’m being really serious, Joh—

 

“-And not only people have memories, Mar—

 

“-Just answer me —!” 

 

He stops in his spot, hands still shoved in his pockets, looking at him with a desperate expression. Beyond them, somehow Johnny heard the roar of cars and people and machinery again. In this light, he really sees Mark's darkened roots, but he bites back his tongue, still.

 

“Just answer me, please.” He repeats, quietly. 

 

“Mark, I…” Johnny began. “-I don’t know, Mark, I really don’t know —what do you...what do you want me to say...?"

 

“It’s not what I want you to say —tell me what you belie—

 

“-What I believe? What do you mean —you need to give me something to work with, I can’t just—

 

“-All this time, when you were with me —did you believe I was a real person? Was I real enough for y—

 

“-Mark, what the hell is your freakin' problem?” Johnny demanded, grasping his shoulders, bending to his eye level. “-are you trying to tell me you aren’t real —what, that this whole thing was some kinda marshmallow fever dr—

 

“-Johnny—

 

“-Don’t do this to me, Mark,” He cut in. “-don’t do this to me. Please, don't, I..." Sighs, anxious, grip weakening. "-I’ve done my best —and I’ll admit I haven’t been the best, but I promise I’ll try, I'll try —I'll try and be better —just don’t go on telling me you’re not r…”

 

He couldn’t even finish the sentence. He let go of him. He ran a nervous hand through his hair, his legs looking like they might collapse. He looked to the road and then back to him. 

 

He shuts his eyes and breathes. His skin buzzes. When he reopens them, it feels like a very long time. But Mark is still there.

 

“I believe you’re a person, Mark,” He said, shaking his head. “-I’ve always believed you were a person —ever since you snuck through my window —and hid under the damn bed while I brushed my teeth.”

 

“You…”

 

Johnny looks to the ground, then back at him. 

 

“I’m not that dense,” He laughs. “-of course I knew you were there. I’m just glad you didn’t run off afterwards. I’m glad we were able to meet each other, in the end.”

 

“Did you know I was going to be at Das?”

 

“No.” He smiles. “-but you did, didn’t you?”

 

“Yeah —I heard—

 

“-I made sure to talk extra loud and act extra reluctant so Yangyang would bring up the place more than once.”

 

Mark laughs.

 

“I think he only brought it up once.”

 

“Yeah? And you still caught it?”

 

Mark blushed. It's hard to look at him now. “-I guess I did.”

 

“Well,” Johnny pinches his ear gently. “-guess I’ll count myself lucky, then.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Here, hang onto these for a sec.” 

 

Taeyong dumps a crate of bloated papayas in Lucas’s arms, turning over to squeeze past the pungent stacks of fermenting fruit. Reaching over a crate of tender dragon fruits, he retrieves a tattered moleskin, flips to a page, marking off the expired stock. 

 

Mutters some swears to himself before turning to the other again, brow flashing. “-oh, just put them over the durians —sorry, forgot about you for a second.”

 

“No problemo,” Lucas holds his breath, setting the box down. Turns. “-you got a whole mini supermarket down here, huh?” 

 

“Yeah,” Snatches the lime-tinged starfruit from the guy’s fingers before he takes a bite. “-not for eating. We’re still running tests on these.”

 

“They’re not from here?”

 

“No,” Taeyong stuffs the notebook back into the stacks along the shelf. Sits along an empty crate flipped upside down. “-they’re all UZ. You’ve never tried eating anything there, have you?”

 

“Nah. I mean, I tried, but I pried open a grapefruit and there was a huge ball of ants inside —scared the shit outta Jungwoo. We just tossed it into the water, had street ramen again.”

 

“Okay, good. You know what’s been happening to people who’ve eaten fruit from there, right?”

 

“I think so?”

 

“You must’ve heard about it,” Taeyong gets up, moves over to the lab counter, flicking on the dusty microscope, slipping in a fresh slide from the fridge underneath. Slips it out, blows on it, slips it back in. “-some medical reports from the major clinics got leaked a couple months ago. You should’ve seen the photos on the billboards.”

 

“You mean the bruised stomachs, the teeth things growing all over the intestines…”

 

“Yeah, those. And the reports only contained human victims. So far, we only know the teeth-seeds in the fruit kill humans —they latch onto your internals and cut off your nerves —so you feel nothing as your organs bleed out.”

 

“Shit…”

 

“You know the ants you found inside that fruit? They live in the teeth. Once they hatch, they start in your intestines and work their way outwards.”

 

Lucas picks out a papaya and turns it in his hands, sitting along the counter beside him. Sets the fruit down, after feeling a shiver of movement underneath the skin. 

 

“But it’s just the humans. The rest of us —we’re okay?”

 

“No idea,” Gestures for him to look into the lens. “-see that? All those tiny worm-like things moving along the cell wall? This is from an early mango, still mostly green. They start off as some kind of bacteria, then once they’re warm enough, undergo endless evolutions.”

 

“They don’t just kill all of us, do they?”

 

“Probably not. They’re smarter than that. Imagine what would happen if they got into an android.”

 

...

 

“So, I don’t get it,” Doyoung turned to Jungwoo on the megabus. “-how do you remember the Mark kid and the camp shit? Don’t Carriers get everything transferred out?”

 

Jungwoo presses the corner of the falsie against his lid. “-yeah, we do, hyung. Technically, we shouldn’t remember anything.”

 

“And yet…”

 

“And yet, threads,” Dabs on a smudge of rose lip stain, presses his mouth together. “-they don’t tell you at the clinic but,” 

 

Angles his face at the tinted region of the window as he applied mascara, one finger holding his lid open. “-the operation’s a work in progress. Always has been. I had it before Johnny, so it’s worse for me.” Laughs. “-or better. Whichever way you wanna look at it.”

 

“So...you remember things. From the ‘threads’.”

 

“Mmhm.” Brushes a long auburn wave behind his shoulder. “-I started getting them just barely three months in. It was really scary at first, actually.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Your vision goes out of focus and you’re completely submerged in the memory until it ends. You’d almost think you’re on acid, except it feels too real.”

 

“But...doesn't it interfere with…?”

 

“The transfers?” Clips down the compact, slipping it into his shoulder pocket. “-no, not really. It’s fine, honestly. Consequence of brain plasticity, I guess?” 

 

Doyoung doesn’t say anything, looking out the window at a gathering mob by the street corner. Someone grabbed a man by the back of his shirt and flung him onto the ground as another stamped on his ankles, then his spine. Dark stains spattered the curb as still another took to his head with a torn wooden splint. 

 

“They lied to us about a lot of things. We don’t even know where the transfers go after we upload them into the main drive.” 

 

He glances over Doyoung’s head just as the man’s arm gets torn off. Oil-soaked wires tremble where they expected muscle and sinew. 

 

“You though they were gone, didn’t you?” Jungwoo shook his head. “-they’ve only gotten better at hiding, the anti-mechs.”

 

Doyoung watches the guy stumble off into the dark of the nearest alley, shoulder still draining along the street. He thinks he sees red dripping off the cables, but it’s just a trick of the light.

 

...

 

“I got a riddle for you,” Mark turned to him. Almost all his hair is black now. 

 

They leaned back against a shore of bottle glass worn soft from years against the tide. He looks out into the early evening mist, at the spot where the sun split the waters into gold and grey. “-what am I...if I believe...I have the memories of two different people...?”

 

“Two different people?” 

 

“Yeah.”

 

Johnny turned to him, squinting. “-are you sure they’re two different people?”

 

Mark rolls his eyes, mildly frustrated. “-yes, I’m sure. Or if I’m not sure —like just believe I’m sure, for the time being.”

 

“Okay,” The other laughs. “-but you know, sometimes you think they’re memories of two different people...and then you realize your brain just splits the periods from when you were seven and after—

 

“-Quit messing arou—

 

“-I’m serious,” Johnny laughs, still. “-many people can’t make the distinction —so they just consider their younger selves a whole other person...who knows —maybe I’d do that too, if I could remember that far…”

 

“Okay, fine, maybe you’re onto something,” Mark relents. “-I mean, like two different people as in I remember certain things I’ve done —but not like in this specific body.”

 

“You think you’ve lived inside two seperate bodies? And you have memories from both of them?”

 

“You think I’m crazy,” Mark looked towards the water again. “-you don’t believe me.”

 

“I don’t think you’re crazy. And I do believe you. I do, Mark, you don’t have to worry about that.”

 

“Yeah?” He asked quietly. “-and why do you believe me?”

 

“I think,” Johnny’s voice comes out softer than usual . “-I think...sometimes things happen to us and we can’t really explain it. And it’s okay because you’re not expected to know everything anyways.”

 

“So sometimes,” He sighs, adjusting his elbow against the pebbles. “- sometimes you need to explain things to yourself —in a way you can understand.”

 

Mark looked at him. 

 

“Have you had to do that?” 

 

He looked down, picking at something in his hair. 

 

“All the time. And sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes I can’t.”

 

...

 

Johnny wakes to rustling and gasping from the bathroom. In the dark, he squints the red analog digits —2:17 am. He mutters, throwing the covers off, staggering barefoot to the rectangular gap of light at the door. 

 

Yanked it open, finding Mark sprawled on the floor, blood galling his inner forearm, where he peeled back an entire strip of skin. A dark, spongy mass curls next to his spattered foot, in a pool of blackened red. Chunks of yellow-brown vomit stick to the pink-streaked toilet rim, more vomit floating in the tub. 

 

A bent women’s razor sits half-sunk in the blood.

 

Johnny collapses, holding Mark’s face for a moment, kicking the razor away, before getting an arm behind him and carrying him to the edge of the tub. He gets Mark to clamp his other hand over his bleeding arm as he set one foot in the tub, reaching above them to unhook the shower head. Guiding Mark to turn with one hand on his shoulder, he directs the cold spray against the arm, specks of pink dotting his shirt as the remaining blood ran down Mark’s calves. 

 

Strands of red slither towards the drain as Mark stares, a knuckle over his mouth. 

 

As Johnny digs the cupboards for the first aid, Mark sucks in ragged breaths, trembling. 

 

“Th-there’s som—” He gasps. “-there’s s-s-someth-th-ing...i-in...s-some-m-n-th-th-th-thhh...”

 

“Slow down, Mark,” Johnny said softly. “-slow down. It’s okay. Breathe. Just keep breathing.”

 

“J-Johnn—” He tried again. “-I...I-I’m...I’m s-sorr...”

 

“No. It’s alright. I shouldn’t have gone to —I should’ve stayed up with you.” He shook his head. “-I should’ve...I should’ve been…”

 

He sets the kit along the toilet lid. Finds the antiseptic, soaks a long cotton strip, sets it over Mark’s arm, avoiding his face when he groans and shudders through his teeth. Wraps the gauze around the spot, letting the white on white keep him from going over. 

 

“Something...something happened, didn’t it?” 

 

Mark nodded, still shaking.

 

“How long?” He stared at the blood along his shirt neck. “-how long has it been?”

 

“A...at...l-least...a week.”

 

“And you never told me.”

 

Mark shook his head, shaking less. 

 

“Were you scared?”

 

He nodded again. 

 

“Were you scared I wouldn’t believe you?”

 

He started shaking again, tears in his eyes. 

 

“You don’t have to tell me now,” Johnny said. “-and if you want, you don’t have to tell me ever. But if you feel like you need to tell me, you can tell me later.”

 

Mark nodded. 

 

“From now on, we should be honest with each other. You can tell me anything, alright?” 

 

He took a damp hand towel from the rung and mussed it through Mark’s hair. “-I’ll try to understand. And if I don’t get it the first time, we can just try again.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Alright.” He turns to look at the blood, then turned back to him. “-okay. I’ll get you somewhere. I’ll go call—

 

“N-no, J—

 

“-Okay. I’ll stay. I’ll stay, right here.” Holds Mark’s shoulders. “-jeez, you’re freezing…”

 

He nodded, sniffling. “-w-woke up fr-freezing, s-so I w…”

 

Johnny let go and held his jaw gently until he stopped shaking. Then he leaned in and kissed him. 

 

When he pulls back, Mark stops him, loosening off the towel around his neck and tucking it across the back of Johnny’s head, pulling him in again. Then Johnny’s knee slips from the blood and Mark crashes backwards, dragging the other in by the shoulder sleeves. Mark tries to steady himself and hits the dial and the shower runs hot over both of them. Laughs. Laughs harder when Johnny grimaces at their clothes, their hair, their mess. Mumbles for him to let go. So Johnny lets go, vomit water soaking the back of his jeans, enduring the smell, and Mark kisses him with his whole body. 

 

After he lets go, Johnny brings Mark’s hands close to his face. “-tell me when you’re warm enough. Tell me when you’re not cold anymore.”

 

“Okay,” He looks down and laughs. “-shit, your pants’re all wet…”

 

“And who’s fault is that, huh?” Kisses Mark before he can answer, the other struggling to wrestle Johnny’s shirt over his head. Gives up, letting it hang loose around his neck. “-who’s fault…”

 

“Mine,” He mumbles. Slipped his fingers beneath Johnny’s waistband and yanked him closer. Winces as his bandages get soaked and he starts bleeding again. “-nngh...all my fault.”

 

“And you’re fine with it.”

 

“You decide for me,” Murmurs against his mouth. “-maybe you know better than I do.”

 

 “I doubt that.” 

 

...

 

“We’ve been here before.”

 

Johnny turns to him, along the bed. Wet clothes lie in a clump along the carpet. He can see the goosebumps scattered along Mark’s throat, shimmering in the tangy hotel lighting.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Mm.”

 

“And which dream was that?”

 

Mark shook his head. 

 

“No. It was real. I can...I can just…” He creases his brow, looking down. “-I used to get these...these, um, flashes of things. Started around three years ago. I’m getting them more often now.”

 

“Really.” His voice sounds doubtful, his eyes seem otherwise.

 

“I remember now, Johnny. I remember us.”

 

They say nothing for a while. 

 

“You remember us. Like this?”

 

“Almost, yeah. Something like this.”

 

“Why are you remembering just now...?” 

 

“I don’t know. I’m not sure. I think something happened.”

 

“Something made you forget.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Sounds really strange. Like a bad dream.”

 

Mark rolls over to rest his cheek against Johnny’s chest. Snuffles, mumbling against his collarbone.

 

“Maybe we’re still in the bad dream,” Smooths his hand over his, linking their fingers together. “-and we’re just at the good part.”

 

...

 

When Johnny finally calls medical, Mark’s asleep. He snores softly in a warm, double blanket burrito, bandages redone, rewound. All the blood’s been mostly wiped off, though the tiles still retain a pinkish sheen, the gaps, a brown stain. Johnny just tossed the dirty towels in the tub. Leave the rest to the cleaners. He’s done enough from here.

 

After Johnny rinsed the dark mound —the one Mark had carved out his arm —he just stared at the thing in his hand. A shriveled watermelon peel, yellow with rot, filled with sprouting roots.