by Jamie Alec Yap
Prototype 239521 please deactivate.
The clock buzzes for the third time tonight. The comscreen burns my eyes. Even after I rub them, the text on my screen remains blurry. I should have gone to bed hours ago.
All Products, please exit your homecubes for maintenance.
At two in the morning?
A blinding light streaks outside the window. I wince, then cough. A white gas seeps into the room all too quickly. When I exit, the narrow corridor between my room and Naobi’s is already heavy with smoke. My eyes water. I panic, and drop to the floor. I wish they gave us enough time to exit properly before flushing us all out.
I hear the homecube door hiss open. Naobi must have made it to the street. I keep close to the ground where the smoke is less, and crawl, grateful that my sister has left the door open.
There’s a transpod parked on our street, larger than any that I had seen before. At least 50 people could fit inside. Metallic tubes wrap around its exterior. As a child, I called them the maintenance transpod’s armor. Two men in gold suits step out, their faces, purposely blank. They refuse to look into anyone’s eyes.
Naobi and I watch as the Products fall in line. Nobody moves. The men work quickly, pointing their gun scanners at the barcode on each of their arms. Instinctively, I touch the one on my left wrist, and notice Naobi touches hers too.
So far, so good. The men have moved down a block, and not once have their scanners turned red. I look at the scanned Products, still in line. They are clearly relieved. I wonder if it is safe to return to my modules. Fortunately, the maintenance run had shaken me awake. I could study for a few more hours.
But I spoke too soon. One of the checker’s scanners turns red. A man in a suit steps forward. He runs a hand through his gray, slicked-back hair and sighs. More red beeps down the line. By the time the men in gold have finished, there are about 20 people who have joined the first.
The men swing their gun scanners up, pointing at the transpod. The Products that have stepped forward enter the transpod wearily, one after the other, as though they had been programmed to do just that. The Products that remain standing on the sidewalk salute them.
I look at Naobi, hoping she closes her eyes –because if she does, then I can too. But Naobi looks forward resolutely. I cover my mouth with my hand, in case I can’t hold back a shriek.
CRUNCH. The heavy metallic transpod deflates, the top end slamming down the bottom. I hear gears whirring to life. The metallic tubes bear down, squeezing the pod flat. In minutes, the process reverses. The tubes retract and the transpod returns to its familiar form. But when it opens to admit the men with the scanners, there is no one inside, just a sheet of carbonized board where the Products used to be. The men examine the boards then prepare for lift-off. I watch the transpod hover then vanish into the sky. Only when it’s gone do I notice that I’m the only one left on the street. Not even Naobi stayed with me to watch them leave.
Naobi’s knife slices off the ends of my hair, nearly grazing my cheek. It glistens in her hand as she expertly twirls it around. “Focus, Cela,” she nags, “your Physical Quotient is way off.”
I give her a look that means I mean business, but end up staring. When I look at Naobi, it’s as though I’m looking at myself–but a slimmer version, more poised, without a hair out of place. Before I know it, she’s aimed for my lower abdomen. I lurch backward and avoid her knife. I trip instead. As I fall, I stab wildly towards her direction, but she nonchalantly blocks all my attempts. Sweat trickles down my forehead. Keeping up with Naobi has always been a challenge. I look at The Instructor who has been evaluating our every move; she shakes her head slightly.
“You aren’t even trying. May I remind you, Cela, The Purpose is only two days away,” Naobi says, as though she were The Instructor. “Just two days until we turn into Products.”
I lose my footing.
“Try harder. There’s not much time to improve your rank.”
I ignore this and recover, and stagger back into position, looking for an unguarded spot. “There’s nothing wrong with being Lo-Q,” I mutter under my breath.
“Oh?” Naobi parries my jab expertly. “No wonder you were watching the transpod with such interest this morning.”
“What do you mean?” I grit my teeth and launch another attack.
Naobi leans down to knock my feet from under me, saying: “They only take Lo-Qs on that ride.”
I fall flat on the cold hard floor. The knife slips out of my hand and crashes with a loud clang. Pain shoots through my body like lightning.
Behind the training room’s glass wall, I see The Instructor input our scores into her Holopad. Instantly, the training room’s billboard-sized Holoscreen projects the adjusted class ranking for the whole school to see. My sister’s name is at the top, on top of all the other Hi-Qs, and mine–I don’t even bother to look–languishes somewhere at the bottom. Batch 2241 Prototypes 2 days until testing flashes repeatedly.
Prototype 239521 daily production completed.
I lift my wrist to scan my barcode by the door. The door automatically slides open with a hiss. I shut it, and make my way to my room before Naobi arrives.
Sometimes I forget that Naobi and I are twins. Though we look almost exactly alike, everyone at The Institute can tell us apart. Our barcodes, which record our ranking, take care of that. Is it even possible that we had once shared everything—our toys, or clothes, our thoughts? When was the last time we enjoyed each other’s company–or when I did not look up to her, and she did not look down on me?
I take out my Holopad and play a palm-sized projection of The Capital: a city with tall buildings whose glass walls glistened in the sun, and transpods that zoomed past the buildings like lightning, carrying tall, slim figures in gold and silver suits, who smiled at each other, exposing their sun-bright teeth. The suits were accompanied by a tiny drone –an electronic errand-machine that catered to their every need.
The hologram was a gift from Naobi, long ago, after I had confided to her that my dream was to work in The Capital, which took in only Hi-Qs. She told me to play it whenever I felt discouraged at The Institute, so that I would remember what I was working for. It’s been a long time since I’d last played it. No matter how hard I tried, my rank remained the same.
I hear the metal heel of Naobi’s boots clank against the front door, and stop the hologram. The sound grates on my ears. I hear her scan her barcode. The door hisses open, she plops down the couch, and beeps open her comscreen. A window pops open on my Holopad.
“Why aren’t you talking to me?”
There isn’t a single wrinkle on Naobi’s white blouse, and her hazel eyes are steely and sure.
“What I said is true and you know it. You aren’t even trying.”
I hate to admit it but she’s right. These days, I am just going through the motions. Deep down, I know there isn’t much I can do to alter my ranking. All my years at The Institute taught me that.
“Naobi, The Purpose is only a couple of days away.”
“You can’t give up. Rankings still change –some stay up until before we’re scanned at The Purpose. Until then, every point you gain still matters.” She’s reverted into the mode of elder sister looking after her less fortunate, inept younger-by-five-minutes sister.
“So why mention that only Lo-Qs take the maintenance transpod?”
She looks at me as though she had completely forgotten how she had beaten me this morning on the training floor.
“You would have won the match without having mentioned this morning’s phase-out.”
She shrugs. “Everybody dies. Besides, I thought everybody knew Lo-Qs tend to meet that sort of end. That’s why everybody wants to be a Hi-Q.” She looks at me pityingly. “Besides, can’t you see I’m doing my very best to motivate you?” She shrugs again. “So you’re a Lo-Q. But there’s always a chance. Until the very last minute, they say.”
I roll my eyes at her. Won’t she stop talking already? “What do you want me to do? Find some way to get rid of everyone else above me? If you have any ideas on how I’m going to instantly claw my way up the rank, then I’m all ears!”
She narrows her eyes, then looks at me primly. “For the record, I am not suggesting that you cheat your way out of being a Lo-Q.”
I laugh. “Cheat? That is the last thing on my mind right now, Naobi.” But before I can say anything else, she shares her screen.
“You don’t want to end up like this.”
She’s playing a clip from a news channel. The news anchor announces that one of the channel’s field reporters has important news from The Capital. The camera shifts to a photograph of a distinguished looking man. The reporter says:
Freudian Howard has stepped down amid allegations that his barcode had been altered. The former director of The Capital became a subject of investigation after discrepancies were noted in the data stored in his barcode. He has been detained by authorities and is now awaiting trial. If found guilty of barcode tampering, Howard will be phased out. Officials have launched an investigation into the way Howard might have been able to tamper with Product barcodes. Until recently, it was believed that barcode tampering was impossible, because of the stringent Quality Control standards and processes employed by The Capital, and elsewhere by The Institutes.
Naobi stops sharing her screen and waits for me to say something. I say nothing. I can’t wait for her to close the comscreen. I’m afraid she’ll notice the fire in my cheeks, recognize my excitement, my hope. Thank you, Naobi, for letting me know there is a way out of a Lo-Q’s brutish, short life. All I need to do is find it. I have two days.
Prototype 239521 please deactivate.
The clock reads 3:00 a.m. I turn away from my holopad and grab the energy dispenser on my side table. Another shot of caffeine, straight into my arm. I let the warm liquid seep through my system. How many hours has it been since I watched the news about Howard? I’d gone through all the information I could find about the man–the spotty news on his early life and education, his political successes, his business interests and partners. I read up on his private life, his family, rumors of his love life. I even read the transcript of his speeches at The Capital and the blog entries he wrote as a teenager. None of these revealed a single clue as to how Howard might have altered the data on his barcode.
Exhausted, I run a random series of keywords and phrases on the search engine:
The Purpose Classification
Lo-Q to Hi-Q
Tamper product code
What is the way
I scroll through the search results under each. Nothing. I blink my eyes and consider whether it is wise to have another shot of espresso. When I open my eyes, I turn my attention to a small ad blinking at the right upper side of my comscreen. It didn’t bother me much when I’d started my search, but now that I am beyond tired, its intermittent flash irritates me. I move to close it, but hesitate when I read:
Get Your Dream Product Classification for Just 10,000 digicoins with THE WAY!
24-Hour Instant Drone Delivery!
It sounds like a joke. Ten thousand digicoins to change a life? The monthly Prototype allowance can cover it.
I turn on the scanner app on my comscreen and position my barcode over it. The screen confirms that The Institute has wired my allowance. I toggle back to the ad and click on it. It redirects me to a blank page with a single button that says:
“This is THE WAY. Buy NOW.”
I click on it and am directed to follow the usual payment instructions. I scan my barcode on the comscreen app without thinking. A soft beep resounds from the comscreen, signaling that the fund transfer is complete. I scan my barcode again and confirm that my digicoin account is empty. Only then do I begin to consider the possibility that I have been scammed.
I am talking myself out of telling Naobi what I have done when I notice it: a drone –a tiny transpod, really– hovering outside my window. Relieved, I let it in. The chilly night breeze sweeps in with the drone. It drops the palm-sized black box into my hand then flies out soundlessly. I press the red button protruding from the top of the box. The box floats from my hand then contracts into a ball that settles atop my desk. On top of the ball lies a thumb-sized transparent film, the size of a Prototype barcode. I pinch the slick film, lift it off the ball, and examine it. It looks just like double-sided invisi-tape–except that one side bears the words, “TRANSFER” and the other, “RECEIVE.”
My heart sinks. I need to find a Hi-Q willing to share their data with me and become my accomplice.
And then I realize: the obvious candidate is outside my door. Unwilling, perhaps; but she can be persuaded. We are sisters after all.
I position the tape over my barcode, and stick the side marked “RECEIVE” over it. Then I take a deep breath and open the door.
“I can’t believe you actually bought it, Cela.” Naobi looks at me with disgust. “I told you not to cheat. I even warned you about what might happen if you did.” She jumps off the bed and begins rummaging through her drawers. “I thought you’d just accept your fate. Be a good—no, better Lo-Q. But you just had to do this, stoop so low to get something you don’t deserve.”
Her outburst throws me off guard. “You don’t think I deserve a good life?”
“What do you deserve? Numbers don’t lie, Cela.”
I remember the Products entering the maintenance transpod, how defeated they looked. All Lo-Qs, Naobi said. That’s how we meet our end. “You don’t think I deserve to live?”
Naobi snorts. “Don’t you get it? We’re all just a bunch of numbers–mere lines of code.”
I can feel the fury radiate from my body. It’s clear to me now that she sees only my rank–not the fact that I am her twin, her sister, a fellow human being. Does she really think we are all mere lines of code? Does it matter what she thinks? All I’m sure of is that I am just a number to her.
She’s found her Holophone and brings it up to her ear. I see she’s dialed the emergency number blinking on the display. I leap and make a grab for it, but she holds it with an iron grip. My gaze latches on to her other arm–the one with the barcode. I grab her wrist, push it against the wall, then place my barcode against hers. The tape between them beeps. Then beeps again.
Naobi drops the Holophone. “What do you think you’re doing?” she yells, trying to wrestle her forearm from underneath mine. A third beep sounds.
“Finishing the transfer process,” I reply. The Way lights up brightly, then fades. I take my wrist off hers, and peel off the tape.
I thought that if it came to this, I would feel terrible. But Naobi’s words turned everything around for me. I am more than satisfied with the outcome that I’ve won for myself. I feel great.
Naobi rubs her wrist. A voice issues from the Holophone she’s dropped on the floor.
“Go on,” I taunt her, “tell them to arrest me. Let’s see if they won’t arrest you too.”
My sister’s face pales. Her mouth quivers.
“Or maybe they won’t arrest us at all. We’re all just numbers to them anyway. Mere lines of code.”
Naobi picks up the Holophone and ends the call. For the first time, I notice a strand of her hair slipping out of her tight bun. Her immaculate white blouse is wrinkled. Her poised, proper, perfect disposition has completely crumbled. She doesn’t look like an older sister bossing over her younger one. Now she looks more like me.
For once, I am the one staring down at her, satisfaction welling up inside my chest. I’m finally going to feel what it’s like to be a Hi-Q. I stop myself from feeling sorry for Naobi. I don’t want to ruin the moment I’ve worked so hard for.
Now we are on our way to The Purpose. I welcome the sunlight streaming in from the transpod’s windows. Seated beside me, my sister glowers darkly. Her hair is pulled up in a messy bun. Her white blouse is rumpled. She’s listening to the news on her Holophone. She hasn’t spoken to me since we used The Way.
I wonder why she hasn’t gotten over it. If we both stay quiet, there should be no risk. Our Prototype ranks won’t be displayed during The Purpose. All that’s revealed is the rank we receive once our conversion is complete. No one knows how the scanner converts the barcode data from Prototype to Product. I doubt that anyone will question the results.
Is she concerned that we’ve switched ranks? I doubt that has happened. The directions on the tape suggested a one-way data transfer. But I honestly don’t know how The Way works–or if it worked at all.
Of course, even if Naobi found herself ranked as a Lo-Q, she could make it as a high-performing Lo-Q. That would keep herself safe from the periodic maintenance sweeps. She might even succeed in getting herself reclassified. She’s just being dramatic right now.
I catch her side-eyeing me, right before she turns up the volume of her Holophone speaker. Someone is delivering today’s latest news:
…to have used a barcode transfer device called “The Way” to acquire a Hi-Q classification, securing his position as director. Earlier today, the Directorate of The Capital announced the deployment of its security forces as an additional measure to safeguard The Purpose Ceremony. New equipment has also been installed to allay stakeholder concerns….
A lump of dread forms in my throat.
Our transpod comes to a stop. The sky above The Institute is a brilliant blue; not a single rain cloud in sight. We join the other Prototypes and march forward. The Instructor directs us to proceed toward what appears to be a gigantic crystal wall. The wall hums, then buzzes tumultuously as each Prototype walks into it, then disappears. Green light flashes down from above.
Prototype 239521 please scan your barcode.
I stand in front of the wall of streaming light. The light falls from a dark frame twice the size of a holographic billboard. “PASS THROUGH TO SCAN HERE,” says the frame. I feel like it will swallow me whole. Or that whoever goes through it won’t ever come out.
I turn and look back at the cloudless blue sky. Several transpods hover, awaiting new passengers.
The Instructor taps me sharply on the shoulder, and gestures that I go through. For the first time, I spot the man in a gold suit beside him. He holds a gun in one hand, and flashes me a smile, showing off his sun-bright teeth.
Shutting my eyes, I step under the frame and into the wall of light. The barcode on my wrist tingles. Something is changing, recalibrating the code. I count to ten before the scanner announces my fate.
About the author: Jamie Alec Yap is a BA Creative Writing undergraduate student at University of the Philippines Diliman. When she is not drowning in her writing or obsessing over proofreading, she enjoys reading (mostly YA Novels), journaling, eating dimsum, and listening to musical soundtracks. Her current life verse is “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:7.