The Man in the Mask

The spy was there. Johnson spotted him immediately while walking out of the hotel foyer. Same guy as before. Couldn’t those idiots have sent somebody different or at least given this one a disguise? Amateurs. He’d have to lose him again.

He had the quick-change outfit on beneath his suit jacket. Record time for a change was thirty-one seconds. He did it in forty. Suit jacket, fake shirt, fake glasses off. Flat cap, sunglasses and earphones on. The mask had to stay. There was no inconspicuous way to pull your face off in the middle of a busy city street.

Johnson weaved through the lunchtime crowds until he reached the edge of the CBD and crossed over to the park where he would meet the informant. He glanced over his shoulder. The spy was gone.

He smiled.

He’d become very good at his job. The mask and disguises were important. But it was the little things. How you walked, how you talked, how you stood. That was his skill. His expertise. They had given him an old man’s mask but he could make himself look any age. That’s why the spy would never catch him.

He sat down on the park bench and signaled for the informant to approach by placing the brown leather bag with silver hardware beside him.

The early spring sunshine felt warm on his face. Well, not his face. His mask. He’d forgotten about the mask again.

He reached up and touched it. It felt so real. Wonderful piece of technology. He remembered when they were introduced. He was one of the first employees to get one. At first, he wished they hadn’t given him an old man’s mask but he learned the part quickly. He excelled at it.

He checked his watch. The informant was late. He scanned the area. Then a knot in his stomach almost bent him in two. The spy had walked out from behind the fountain straight ahead and was striding towards him. Johnson looked around for an escape but there was nothing to do. Nowhere to go. He’d finally been caught.

Best to play it cool. He pretended not to look as the spy sat down.

“I’m your informant.”

“Don’t lie. You’ve been following me for months. Years.”

“There’s something you need to know.”

Johnson turned to look as the spy reached inside his jacket and pulled out a hand mirror. He held the mirror up then flipped it around to point at Johnson.

Johnson reeled backwards and inspected his face. The mask had degraded. Badly. Great crevasses ran this way and that weaving their way through lesser wrinkles. He would have to get a new one. The agency would see to it.

He gathered himself and sat up straight. This spy was not going to get the better of him.

“And just what do I need to know?” he asked in his authoritative old man’s voice.

The spy looked at him sadly.

“You’re not wearing a mask.”

The Lockdown

[Note: this story was originally written for twitter and is broken into tweet size chunks].

The year is 2030. Melbourne has just come out of its 3rd lockdown of the year due to the great Rhinovirus pandemic. You put on your mask, grab the car keys and head out the front door. You close the car door, sit for a while and reminisce.

Coming out of lockdown is not how it used to be you think to yourself. Once upon a time, it meant going back to the local cafe or restaurant. But those don’t exist anymore. The last small business closed its doors in 2027 due to the great Adenovirus pandemic.

You do miss those small businesses. What’s left of the Australian economy now consists of about a dozen mega-corporations. You’re on your way to one now to pick up something for the house. You park the car and stop off to grab a sausage on your way into the store.

While you’re standing the queue a nurse in a hazmat suit walks past and your phone beeps signalling that you’re due for your weekly vaccine shot.

“How many new this week?” you ask.

“Thirty,” she replies meaning there’s been thirty new sub-strains added to the vaccine since last week.

She jabs the needle in your arm. You’ve had so many of these that you barely notice the little prick of pain any more. The vaccine covers 14,397 different sub-strains of the hundred major respiratory virus groups. Well, make that 14,427 different sub-strains.

The vaccine used to be a yearly shot but the government made them weekly in 2028 following the great Enterovirus pandemic. Despite the increased frequency of the vaccines, the number of lockdowns has also increased. There’s now usually at least six per year.

With lockdowns so common, the government needed to make enforcement easier. In 2026, following the great Respiratory Syncytial Virus pandemic, the government installed automated locking for every residence. The locks are controlled from the pandemic response centre.

After your trip to the store you walk back in your front door and take off your mask. A pressure builds in your nose. You grab it and try to hold your breath but you can’t stop it. You sneeze loudly. A simultaneous click can be heard from the doors and windows of your house as the locks snap into place.

A red light starts flashing and a siren goes off. Following the great Parainfluenza pandemic of 2029, the government introduced cough and sneeze sensors in every residence. Once the sensor goes off you are locked in your house until a test team visits and takes a sample.

You sit and wait.

The test team, dressed in hazmat suits, arrive within thirty minutes.

Thankfully, you test negative to the 26,399 viral strains in the database. However, you will have to spend fourteen days in mandatory quarantine.

Your lockdown isn’t over yet.