I didn’t realize I had been hacking through seventeen hours when Rolf tapped me on the shoulder.
“Gertie, last call was 20 minutes ago,” he said. Twice.
I saved the code I’d been working on but it took me a minute to refocus. I stalled by pulling up my bag from under the desk but stood up too quickly from there. I had to hold onto the chair while the blood rushed out of my head and back into it again.
“Ten hours,” Rolf said as Barakah took my place.
I almost protested but he was right. I needed the break. Too many days in a row to remember too many hours at it. Even though I was so close. My brain was fried with code bacon.
The ten blocks and six flights to my studio almost did me in. I fell onto my bed with a thud. But damn if I could actually fall asleep. My mind raced cyberwar tactics. Backdoors. Infiltration. Sabotage. I finally gave up and got dressed and snuck around the corner to one of the last buildings standing in the city. Underneath it was a boarded up subway station. A bunch of us had turned it into a place to drink and listen to music.
Pranav and Jafar were sitting at the bar. Since the last time I was here someone had donated a pair of beat up matching couches they scavenged from an once fancy office building down the street. I would have liked to watch them move them without getting into trouble — it had to have been a sight. Besides Pranav and Jafar everyone was gathered on the couches to listen to an old dvd player between them.
“Gertrude!” Pranav yelled too loudly.
“You know she hates it when you call her that,” Charlie said as he filled me a glass.
“Which is why he does it,” I replied.
“It’s been a week,” Jafar said.
“Yea. Well. I almost had it.”
“Almost is for losers,” Pranav slurred.
“We’re not supposed to talk about the code,” Jafar whispered.
“Just saying I need a break.”
Apparently I did cause I finished that first glass in a quick minute. Didn’t even notice some guy named Kleima had joined us = and was humming Sisters of Mercy’s Black Planet into his beer real quiet as the Rolling Stones Gimme Shelter played on behind us. I was into my second beer when Pranav walked around to join Kleima on “Run around in the radiation/run around in the acid rain/on a black black planet…” Neither of them could sing for shit. Charlie had to remind everyone to keep it down.
I hadn’t gotten to the point of not caring so I moved a couple seats away. After their duet Pranav and Kleima got into it over hockey. Some argument that seemed irrelevant and stupid. I took another sip.
“So, how are you, Gertie?” Jafar asked as he moved over a seat.
“As good as anyone.”
“What do you think of Sai?”
“Uh?” We weren’t supposed to talk about the work in public but especially we weren’t supposed to talk about each other. Nobody could know anything or it would risk the effort.
Kleima stood between us and smacked Jafar on the back. He smelled of beer and body odor and something else I couldn’t quite identify.
“You two know each other?” I asked Jafar.
“Just met,” Kleima said with beer flirty eyes. The worst kind.
“Where you from, Kleima?” I asked.
“No where, everywhere.”
“And you’re from somewhere?”
“I am from somewhere.”
“I thought all the where’s were gone now.”
I wasn’t drunk enough to be immune. The numbing grief, the aloneness, the lack of purpose outside of work, would turn around on the tip of a pin. I was drunk enough now that a piece of it ripped through my throat and lodged itself in my skull, holding up the words from coming out of my mouth.
Luckily Pranav stumbled over singing David Bowie’s Five Years. Kleima joined in and the two sauntered around in each other’s arms like their team won the Super Bowl, or whatever they call it in hockey. “Not so loud,” Charlie said, again, as he put a fourth glass of beer on a tray to take over to those on the couches. “I mean it.”
“He didn’t mean anything by it,” Jafar said as he took the napkin out from under his beer and gave it to me. Apparently my eyes were watering. “We’ve all lost too much.”
“I just haven’t had beer in a while. Became a lightweight, I guess.”
Kleima plopped down hard on the stool next to me. He leaned over and whispered.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to get too intimate with you.”
“It’s not about intimacy. I’m just getting drunk.”
“So. Where are you from?”
“Here. What used to be here.”
“Ahh. A New Yorker. East side or west side?” How long had it been since I’d heard those references?
“The island. The region. My people were — My people are Lenape. This area is part of our historic territories.”
“Oh. So you’re an Indian?”
“Wow. That is so cool.”
I got up to leave. I knew what would follow would be the “how much” question and I just didn’t have the energy for it. I couldn’t believe this particular kind of stupid could survive an alien invasion.
“Come on. I was joking. Sit down. I’ll buy you another beer.”
Kleima waved and Charlie brought me another one. Pranav and Jafar had moved over to one of the couches, talking with Maria and Hua from my building.
“Your family aren’t here?”
“No. They were in California, Oklahoma, Washington.”
“The new 911.”
“Used to be where were you on 9-11. Now it’s—”
“Got it. ‘Cept the world was shit for a lot of people when the world went to shit.”
“I guess. I mean, I see your point… So you’re all alone in the world now? That must be lonely.”
“You assume being alone means being lonely?”
“Yea. Can’t imagine being alone. In this. This is hard enough when you’re not alone.”
“So who are you with?”
“Sophia. Our four boys. Her parents and brother.”
“And you’re happy? Don’t hear that much.”
“Yea.” He was insulted.
“Not because of them. Not because of the world. Just saying that just because you have a family doesn’t mean you are happy.”
“Having a family is all I ever really wanted.”
“So why aren’t you with them? Being happy?”
“What does that mean?”
“No. You meant something.”
Pranav turned up Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ The Weeping Song and Charlie had to go over and turn it down.
“Last thing we need are the Albinos finding out about this place.”
“Last thing we need,” Kleima mumbled and finished off his beer.
“You don’t seem happy. That’s all I was saying.”
“You don’t know me.”
“You’re right. I don’t. I’d like to, though.”
“I’m no one’s piece of ass.”
“I would never say that. I would never think that.”
“You just did.”
Reyansh, Dawud, and Yunxu arrived — loudly and apparently already drunk — and hung at the bar while waiting for their drinks.
“You are a fucking genius,” Reyansh exclaimed and uncharacteristically gave me a hug.
“Rolf said you did it,” Dawud said.
“Her work got us to the backdoor, not through it,” Yunxu said and drank half his beer. Competitive prick.
“Alright, what’s going on here!” Jafar announced and put his hand on Reyansh’s shoulder as if to tell them all to shut up.
“We’re all friends,” Reyansh replied and clicked his glass to Jafar’s.
“It’s not us I’m worried about,” Jafar said.
“Fucking Albinos! Suck my nuts!” Pranav screamed as he passed out. Luckily he was already sitting on the couch.
“Either get back to drinking or get back to your flats,” Charlie ordered in his thickest of English accents.
Reyansh, Dawud, and Yunxu joined Jafar back on the couch, shoving Pranav over to a corner. Maria and Hua were off by themselves, no doubt solving the world’s problems. I had a mind to join them but I put my sweater back on and stood away from the bar stool.
“You’re not going, are you?” Kleima asked as he handed me another beer.
“Seems like a good time to go.”
“Come on. One more.”
“Tell me about your work.”
“You know we don’t talk about our work here.”
“Why don’t we go somewhere where we can talk… about whatever we’d like?”
“I don’t know you.”
“I know you’re lonely,” he said, quietly. “You know I’m not happy. Let’s go somewhere.”
“Not going to happen.”
“Who are you, anyway? I’ve never seen you… around.”
“I work with Rolf. I’ve seen you.”
“I haven’t seen you.”
“We don’t have to go anywhere. Let’s talk about why you’re lonely.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“No. Seriously. You don’t have family, or friends?”
Charlie was lingering close by. And drying the same glass for a while now. We locked eyes for a good long second. He tapped his nose and Reyansh and Dawud sauntered up with empty glasses, standing on either side of me and Kleima.
“What did you say your name was?” Reyansh asked, pretending to be more drunk than he was.
“We all got names, shaqiq,” Dawud said.
I gently put my hand on Kleima’s.
“What the fuck!”
“What is it?” Dawud asked.
“He’s one of them!”
I grabbed at his hand, pulling at the skin. It was pliable and stretched away from his body. I kept pulling as Reyansh, Yunxu, and Charlie stepped up. I let go. It moved gracefully back into place — a second skin that protected the aliens from the Earth’s pollutants and sun.
“But you look human,” I said and backed away.
“We look human now.”
“How is that possible?”
“We have adapted.”
“Why? Why have you adapted?”
“We can become you now.”
I pulled at my own skin. It was pliable and stretched away from my body. I grabbed my glass, broke it against the bar, and screamed as I shoved it into my neck, “I am the fucking backdoor.”