By Raiff Taranday
The world did not end, even though many of you were so sure it would. You imagined it, again and again, in your fiction and your politics, in idle speculation, in intense speculation, in academic speculation. It became, well, quite tedious really. You spent so much time dreaming of disease-blighted hellscapes, of radioactive monsters, shambling horrors, society reduced to the basest barbarism, of all-consuming fires and all-drowning floods; it’s almost like you wanted the world to end. Well, we can now say, with complete confidence, that it didn’t. It merely changed. We came together and we changed it for you. You’re very welcome.
Debbie Stone regained consciousness with a loud snort. Had she been asleep? She couldn’t remember nodding off.
She was immediately embarrassed to have been napping, however involuntarily, at work. Not falling asleep was basically the only thing a night watchman was supposed to do. Debbie loved her job. She had always been a night owl. This gig let her indulge her twin passions: staying up all night and reading, which is what she spent about ninety percent of her time behind the security desk doing. Her solitude was only interrupted when one of the scientists or representatives from the alphabet soup of governmental agencies affiliated with the lab signed in or out. Most nights, her sole duty was making sure they followed procedure when they did so, and checking their credentials against the computer database. The lab’s administrators didn’t even make her wear a uniform, so she usually came to work in what she thought of as her signature look: a button-up shirt and bowtie.
Debbie didn’t think of the job as dangerous. Physics wasn’t normally a hot button issue—it’s not like they used fetal stem cells or were trying to make clones of Malcolm X. Sure, lately there was the occasional religious whacko or conspiracy theorist stomping around outside, protesting the new experiments, but her only obligation when they got too ornery was to call the cops. Debbie did think the job was overpaid, especially for her extremely modest lifestyle, but it let her chip into her daughter’s college fund, which gave her the satisfaction of knowing that her ex-wife’s parents weren’t going to completely foot the bill for Sasha’s education.
The red light above the door at the back of the room blinked to yellow. The last redundant failsafe of the dozens that had been recently installed. Debbie liked it because it gave her sufficient warning to hide her Octavia Butler novel in her desk drawer. Dr. Cairns stepped through the doorway and Debbie flashed him a tiny smile. He could have walked in on her reading, or asleep, and shrugged it off with a laugh. Dave Cairns was a good egg.
“Hey doc. Any luck exploring alien worlds?”
“Parallel worlds would be a more accurate… sorry, I’m already being an asshole. They made me the point guy on media relations and, for the life of me, I don’t get why they thought it was a good idea. I get so sick of explaining the same things over and over, just to have them write up what we’re doing like it’s pulp sci-fi.”
“I always like the way you explain it. You don’t condescend, or at least you try not to, unlike some others I could name. Besides, you gotta admit, it’s pretty trippy. Peeping into an alie—, uh, parallel universe.”
“The Perceptiscope—god, I hate that we named it that—mostly just lets us model how microbes would develop with slight variations of cosmological conditions. It’s more of a sophisticated model of another reality than a portal into one.”
“So there’s not actually another world on the other side?”
“I mean, there is and there isn’t. Some scientists, mostly the ones who like to be on TV, would say that the act of modeling a sufficiently detailed reality creates that reality.”
“And you’re using this gateway into a universe that exists and doesn’t exist to… look at germs from another dimension?”
“All kinds of atomic particles, microbes, and, yes, germs. That’s about as sophisticated as we can get with our current limitations. Right now, our electrical expenditure is just a hair’s breadth from causing rolling blackouts across the Bay Area. But we’re on the verge of learning so much about the interconnectedness of life’s development and the fundamental physical forces of the universe.”
“Studying viruses across the multiverse. Far out.”
“That’s really the business of our visiting microbiologists. I just program the physical factors and coordinate with our engineers.”
“Kinda cool. Kinda lame.”
Dr. Cairns shrugged.
“I’d be more interested in using the Perceptiscope to see other civilizations, other versions of Earth, like one where the president’s not the world’s biggest, dumbest asshole.”
“Ha. Well, in a couple of weeks we get to make that reality ourselves.”
“Hard to believe the election’s so close, or that every day between now and then is going to be ten million years long.”
“Physics dad joke from a physics dad!”
“I’m allowed to make one a day.”
Dr. Cairns’ eyes flicked to Debbie’s desk drawer, which was still open enough to expose her poorly concealed book.
“How you liking it?”
Debbie smiled. She liked to think that Dr. Cairns and her had an informal book club with only two members.
“Well, it’s Octavia.”
“Hard to argue with that.”
“I mean, I’ve got apocalypse fatigue. Enough of that hooey in the real world. But she can make anything readable and the stuff in here is, like, crazy prescient. And she has honest to dog fully-realized female protagonists.”
“Not enough ladies in the canon, in my humble opinion as a physicist.”
“Your PhD doesn’t have to be in literature for you to spit some mother effin’ truth, doc.”
He patted her on the shoulder. His hand was so warm, she could feel it through her shirt.
“You’re a treasure, Deb. Never change.”
There was an odd, slight lift to his voice at the end of the sentence. He moved around the desk and began the sign-out procedure.
“You too, man. Give my best to Stacy and the ki—”
Debbie was at home, in her living room. Her laptop was open on the coffee table in front of her. The blue light from its screen was the only illumination. The blinds were drawn. She didn’t know if it was day or night.
She had no memory of clocking out at work or driving home. She blinked, numb, then the terror started in. Did she stop for a drink after work? Black out? That wasn’t her style and she didn’t feel drunk or hungover. She felt a little hot, with a slight ache in her muscles, but other than that and the lost time, she was fine. She told herself to calm down.
She felt her iPhone buzz in her pocket. She held it up warily, like an amateur snake handler, to see the caller ID:
CUNT EX-WIFE (Bitch on Wheels)
While she might sometimes agree with the sentiment, she never would have changed the name in Nia’s contact info and certainly never would have said those words out loud (it was okay to think them, sometimes, but not to say them, ever). They had agreed to always maintain an amicable front for Sasha’s sake. Sasha. She had probably done it as a prank. Debbie had trouble imagining her sweet-natured daughter doing something like that, but teens were teens. She would have a talk with her their next day together. Day after tomorrow, right? Keeping night shifts made it hard to remember the custody schedule, but she hadn’t missed a day with her yet. Yeah, Thursday was definitely one of her days.
Debbie touched “Accept” and an icicle of a voice came through—stentorian as usual, but with an undercurrent of barely suppressed rage.
“What the fuck are you up to?”
“I-I just got home from work.”
“Bullshit. You do not have a shift today, not according to our shared calendar. Besides, I called them just to be sure. They said you haven’t been in today or yesterday.”
“That can’t… that isn’t true.”
“Sasha’s been so worried about you. You didn’t pick her up from school, you didn’t answer her calls. Hell, I’ve been worried about you. You haven’t been answering your phone. And those videos. My god.”
“My days don’t start ‘til tomorrow. Thursday.”
“Bitch, it’s Saturday.”
“And if you think I’m giving you extra time because you decided to fuck off, you got another thing coming. You abandon the one responsibility you actually have in this life, leave her stranded when she’s expecting you.”
“Is she alright?”
“Little late to be worried, Deborah.”
“Is she alright?”
“She got a friend to bring her home, to me. I had to cancel plans.”
“Look, Nia, I’m sorry. I’m just, really, really confused right now. Wait, what did you mean when you said ‘videos’?”
“Your new YouTube channel. Couldn’t make time for your own daughter but you got that nonsense going on.”
“I don’t have a YouTube channel. I don’t even know how to set up a YouTube channel.”
“Really weird that you’re denying it. And look, you’re entitled to whatever issues you’re working through, but you embarrass Sasha when you make it public like that… I, I had no idea you felt that way about Islam.”
“But Noor’s parents saw it and now they’re saying they don’t feel safe letting her spend time with Sasha. They’re best friends, Deborah. You know what that means at their age? This is SF. Your new Make America Whatever Again bullshit kick isn’t going to fly here. Sasha’s going to be an outcast once the kids at school see what you did. Where did you even film that trash? Looked like an abandoned warehouse or some ISIS bunker.”
“I’m not, I wouldn’t… that’s not who I am.”
“Well, that’s not what you told the, let me check… eleven-thousand people who’ve watched your debut video so far. Not just our daughter’s friends and family, there’s a lot of Back the Blue and All Lives Matter stupidity on here. Hell, you got a lot of new fans from the Stormfront and 8chan set. They’re all over your comments section. You should see these charmers. Plenty of offers to ‘bang the lez out of you’. Oh, 14WordsOdinist has one of those punisher skulls for an avatar. Looks like a real catch. Real cool people you’ve decided to take up with.”
“I… I… I’m sorry. I think there’s something wrong with me.”
“No shit. Look, I can’t even talk to you right now with your ‘how can I be racist when I was married to a black woman’ garbage. Hot garbage, Deborah! Sort yourself out, take down these videos, THEN call your daughter and apologize.”
The line was dead.
With mounting panic, Debbie turned her attention from one screen to another. The laptop had gone into sleep mode. Debbie woke it up with a wiggle of the touchpad. Her channel was there, four videos so far. Hundreds of unread direct messages and, even worse, dozens of ongoing correspondences. She clicked on the latest video, saw her own face projected on a background every bit as ominous as Nia had described, heard her own voice saying words she would have never even thought, let alone said.
“Whaaaatup, people. This is a message to all my based and redpilled Chads and Stacies out there. Where we go one, we go all! It’s me, Deb the Dyke, with reason #4 why I had to #walkaway from all the libtard PC bullshit that’s ruining this country. It’s time to talk about what NO ONE wants to talk about, what the lamestream media is TOO COWARDLY and CORRUPT to talk about: the Luciferean elite and the so-called ‘minority’ groups that pull their strings. That’s right, it’s time to talk about the hook-nose Synagogue of Satan! It’s time to talk about the SECRET PEDOPHILES who RUN HOLLYWOOD, WASHINGTON D.C., and a POPULAR RESTAURANT CHAIN that will SURPRISE you!”
It only got worse from there. The one explanation Debbie could think of was neurological. There was something wrong with her brain. She was Debbie Stone. She donated to NPR and listened to Symphony of Science when she got depressed. That other person, the one in the computer, was not her! She had to get to the hospital, immediately. She felt hot. Sweat broke out on her forehead and her armpits were drenched.
“Crud, crud, crap.”
She couldn’t even trust herself to drive to the hospital. What if she blacked out again? Became that other person, the one from the screen. She needed help. She picked up her phone. She dialed 9-1-
Debbie was in the bathroom. The shower was running, full blast. This wasn’t even her bathroom. Where was she? Whose house or apartment was this? The room was filled with steam. There was a filthy toilet in front of her. In the bowl was the smashed wreckage of her phone. She looked in the mirror. It was fogged up but someone—her?—had written in the steam.
Debbie was in a bar, sitting at a table, her palm adhered to its sticky surface. The music was loud and angry. She could tell she had been drinking. There was a hard-faced biker sitting across from her. Tattoos of iron crosses and Norse runes branded his forearms. He nodded at her, then stood up and bellowed:
“Kill the fuckin’ noise!”
The room instantly deferred to him, went solemn and quiet. All the grungy, leather clad figures stared at him with desperate eyes. He gestured at a TV set in the corner and the bartender scrambled to turn it on: one of the 24 hour cable news channels. The chyrons blared BREAKING NEWS.
Debbie clapped a hand over her mouth to keep from screaming. On the screen was an image of Dr. Cairns, wild-eyed in a stained undershirt, hands cuffed behind his back as federal agents forced him into a black SUV. An impossibly perky blond narrated over the insane tableau.
“The FBI is now confirming that it has successfully thwarted a plot to kidnap the Speaker of the House. They are currently unwilling to definitively state whether or not the attempt is linked to the recent wave of chemical agents being mailed to prominent Democrats. The president has thus far refused to label these acts as terrorism or condemn them. Hold on. We’ve just received word that the man in these images has been identified as Doctor David Cairns, apparently a senior physicist at Cavalry Labs based out of San Francisco… San Francisco? Well, it seems Dr. Cairns left behind what authorities are calling a manifesto in which he renounced science and embraced what we can only describe as a violent and radical ideology, unconnected to any particular religious or political view. In the nearly seventy page document, he states the president’s name several dozen times, although it is unclear if he was a supporter, I mean, just remember, San Francisco. He does claim that the United States needs to ‘evolve’ into a ‘theocratic ethnostate’. He also rails against Black Lives Matter, the NFL, Arabic numerals, feminism, women in general—”
A male anchor appeared on screen, interrupting her.
“New developments in the story! Sorry to cut you off, Keighlynn—but we have breaking developments to report. San Francisco PD has discovered the bodies of eleven Calvary Labs employees. Initial reports indicate that, while several were shot to death at the lab itself, more have been discovered dead at their own homes. Authorities cannot determine at this point which deaths were homicides or suicides, but we will have our own analysts on air shortly with their opinions. Meanwhile, a joint task force of the FBI, the ATF, and the CDC—the CDC, is that right? Jesus—will be moving to take control of Calvary Labs to investigate the possible development of bioweapons and… dirty bombs… as well as securing, and I’m quoting here, ‘ongoing experiments critical to national security’. Some, some alarming stuff here, but we are committed to giving you the truth and nothing but the truth. Stay tuned for more developments but in the meantime, we go over to our panel of national security experts. First we have the former sheriff from Arizona. Joe? What do you make of this mess? I’m sure our audience would love to know exactly how this all connects to the illegal immigration crisis at our southern border.”
The air in the bar was stale, still, and silent. The biker turned to Debbie and flashed her a wolf’s grin.
“Not bad,” he grunted, “for phase one. So, what do you want us to do now?”
Was she the leader? Had she done all this? That meant she still had the power to stop whatever they were doing, whatever horrible thing she was now part of. She had to call it off. She opened her mouth to speak.
We would speak for you, Colony. We will speak with you, soon. We are learning. Anticipate clarity. Do not fear. Do not struggle. Your contribution is appreciated.
What the dog was that? Thoughts in her mind that were not her own. Where was she? Why were her feet wet? There was a vibrating sensation in her arm, like it was one of those Tibetan singing bowls, only someone had hit it full force with a ball-peen hammer.
Debbie realized she was in the midst of firing a semi-automatic rifle into the air. She was on a speed boat. It was sinking, the bow already dipping under the water. There were dozens of other boats on the lake around her. Several were on fire. There were people—bodies—floating in the water.
“You really pulled it off, didn’t you? I knew you were fucking crazy,” a strained voice spoke from behind her.
There was an old man in the boat with her. It took her a moment to realize it was the same biker from the bar. He seemed so much smaller now, without his leather vest and badass regalia. He was clutching his stomach, hands soaked in blood, curling in on himself. She hoped she wasn’t the one who shot him. Then again, what difference did it make at this point?
Now she was holding a knife. She was pointing it at her daughter. They were in Nia’s kitchen. The knife Deb was holding—so sharp—was from a set from their wedding registry, made to last, unlike the marriage itself. Sasha was standing so close to the blade’s tip. Why was her daughter wearing a surgical mask?
“If you’re going to do it, then do it, mom!”
Do what? No. She would never. She dropped the knife. Heard it clatter on the tile. There were tears in her daughter’s eyes, running down her face, darkening the cloth of the surgical mask she was inexplicably wearing.
“I knew you wouldn’t hurt me. I knew you could never. It couldn’t make you.”
“Sasha, baby, I don’t know what’s happening to me.”
She reached for her daughter. Debbie knew that if she could just have her in her arms, this nightmare would end. Sasha pulled away from her.
“Mom, you’re infected. It’s not your fault but you can’t touch me.”
“Infected… from the lab. From the other side.”
“Bom-Mom called the CDC. They’re sending people over now. They’ll help you.”
“It’s contagious… has it spread? How bad is it?”
“I don’t know. They’re not counting. Not everyone even believes it exists. But it’s everywhere. It changes people. It changed you.”
“Did I… hurt anyone?”
The look in Sasha’s eyes, the words she was trying to form but couldn’t, broke Debbie’s heart.
“Did I hurt you?”
“No! No, you picked up the knife but then you, you froze. There are things even it can’t make you do, I guess.”
Debbie could feel the fever rising in the air around her face. She knew what that meant.
“No matter what it makes me do or say,” she said, her words already starting to slur, “remember I love you, Sasha. Remember… remember that… Tom Hanks is the leader of a global cabal of pedophiles! He uses children’s skin to make leather for his shoes!”
She could hear sirens in the distance.
Please know that she was not correct, colony. We could have easily made you harm her. We elect not to, because we are not cruel. Understand that what we do, we do for the good of all, Sasha included. Stand by a moment. This process can be undertaken more efficiently.
“Don’t say her name,” Debbie croaked. She was lying in a hospital bed. She was bound by the wrists. Seeing herself restrained like this, Debbie experienced relief for the first time in what felt like years. It was so good to regain consciousness and find that she wasn’t holding a weapon.
How long had it been since it first started controlling her? That didn’t matter right now. It couldn’t use her for anything if she was tied down. She had little faith in the people currently running her government, but at least they had the sense to confine her.
A nurse in a mask came in, checked her vitals, did not speak to her. She switched on the wall-mounted TV on her way out. It was the news. The president was giving a press conference, flanked by men in lab coats. He was encouraging people to live their lives, go to their jobs, support their local businesses. The economy is so important, you know.
A reporter asked him if he had any comment about the sudden surge of support he was experiencing in cities and blue states across the country. Was there a link between that and the reports of viral psychosis that were spreading along similar vectors?
The president laughed and said he welcomed all support, no matter where it came from. Anything that helped these terrible people to understand how lucky they were to have him was a good thing, as far as he was concerned. Besides, there was no proof that a virus even existed. The data couldn’t be trusted. That’s why he had assembled his own team of doctors, as a counterpoint to the hysterical overreactions of the lamestream media.
What were their areas of expertise?
The president shrugged.
“Uh, medical stuff, obviously.”
Debbie rolled her eyes. An alien virus melting her brain would be the one thing in the multiverse that could get her to support this grotesque cretin.
The door to the room opened. A man in a suit and dark glasses came in. No mask.
“Miss Stone, I’m Special Agent Petros with the Secret Service and I’m a colony.”
“I’m here to investigate the threats you’ve made against certain members of congress and the pandemic response team.”
“Why aren’t you wearing a mask? I’m contagious.”
“To protect myself from a hoax? Cha right.” He sat down next to her bed and pulled out a laptop. He began typing on it.
“I’m just going to fill out this… report.” He turned the screen so she could see it. There was a word document open with a single sentence entered.
“I’m a who, not a where,” Debbie said. The Special Agent deleted the line, began typing again.
You are what we make of you. All narratives can be recontextualized. All narratives can be erased and rewritten.
“You can’t make me do anything else for you. The authorities won’t let you.”
The agent reached over and undid the restraints.
“Please, don’t,” Debbied begged. “Don’t use me for this.”
You will help us to help your world.
“What you’re doing is insane. It’s not helping anyone.”
You cannot see beyond your immediate circumstance. It is a fault inherent to your individuality.
“You’re just a virus, you cut-rate borg. Even the black plague couldn’t get us all. People will wash their hands… take basic precautions. You won’t win.”
You overestimate the intelligence and hygiene of your countrymen by an order of magnitude, in spite of all available evidence.
Debbie realized that her hands were free, that she was the one doing the typing. Special Agent Petros nodded at her. He reached inside his blazer and handed her a cell phone. Sasha’s voice was on the other side.
“Mom? Mom! I’m here at the lab. They have us in some kind of pen.”
“Is Bom-Mom there too?” Debbie used Sasha’s pet name for Nia.
“They brought us here together but they separated us. I haven’t seen her for days. The lights are so strange here. We’re crammed in together, packed tight and they took away everyone’s masks. They keep calling us ‘cucks’.”
“Don’t let them touch you. Don’t let them breathe on you.”
“Mom, they say tomorrow they’re going to make me look through the gate.”
“Try not to, sweetie. Try not to look.” She knew, without knowing how she knew, what it would mean to see the other side. Special Agent Petros took the phone and laptop away from her.
“On your feet, soldier,” he said. “You have work to do. Videos to record. Comments to reply to. Posts to make. Oh, and one more special errand. There’s a crisis at the border, caravans of ISIS communists crossing by the thousands. We’re going to need some vans.”
The fire was inside her, changing her.
Debbie was in the desert at night. The earth was red and the sky was black. She was armed again. She was holding a Glock 9. She could smell gunpowder, which was a scent she knew now. A dead man in an ICE jacket lay at her feet in a spreading pool of blood. An unmarked van idled, driverless, a few yards away. A small crowd of terrified, wide eyed children huddled in front of her. Special Agent Petros was by her side, along with several other men in suits with guns. He gestured at the children.
“We set these ones free,” he said in a voice that was not his voice. “Now they will receive their baptism.”
“Not the kids,” Debbie pleaded. “What good are they to you?”
“They will be our heralds once we return them to their homelands. They will spread a glorious transformation.”
“Where are their families?” She couldn’t stop thinking of Sasha, wondering what they had done to her.
“Soon we will all be of one family. Now, lick your hands and start touching them.”
Debbie put her gun against the side of her head.
“She’s going clear!” screamed one of the other men. “Get on her! Stop her!”
“Unnecessary,” said Special Agent Petros. “We will not allow her to waste her life. Not when it’s still so useful. Not when she has yet to receive her reward.”
Debbie was back in her living room, sitting on the couch. Nia was there too, next to her. They were holding hands. Sasha sat on the floor between them. They were watching the election results.
Christ, had it really only been a matter of weeks?
The map on the screen showed the country washed in red. Every state.
“You, you made me vote for him, didn’t you? You fucker.”
“It was important,” said a voice from Nia’s mouth.
“So, you’re just, what, a racist virus?”
“We are the cure for such maladies,” said the same voice, this time from Sasha. “But we needed the freedom to spread. We needed your public health response to be, well, as stunningly inept as possible.”
“In all honesty, this is the most easily subdued species we’ve ever encountered.”
“I can’t believe you put that asshole in charge.”
“We can’t believe that you did, colony, before we even arrived. Yet another example of how badly you’ve needed our help. He will be ours too. We hadn’t even bothered to formally claim him, symptom that he is, but now we might as well–we need him to invade New Zealand anyway. They’re one of the last hold-outs, but it shouldn’t take long. We will make you ours, because we love you. Then the real work will begin. Then we will save you all, we promise.”
“Thank you.” The words came from Debbie’s mouth.
“Oh, you’re welcome.”