The bright sunlit day created an illusion of warmth and wellbeing, but insidious reality could not be so easily ignored. Beyond the sunny rays, softly rustling leaves, and morning-quiet street, the world was not right.
It was apparent in the lack of people taking their dogs on daily walks, the absence of traffic on the roads, the lonely, empty grocery store aisles, boasting all the produce but none of the buyers. These sights, which had been so common, had slowly disappeared in the past months, and now they were completely gone. Nobody stepped outdoors, nobody drove, nobody shopped in stores. One might think this was all yet another after-effect of the pandemic of 2020, but it’s worse than that – this was a result of the cure.
* * *
Everyone remembers how the pandemic started – the virus that traveled worldwide in a matter of a few short months, with every safety measure enacted after it was too late to control the spread. As a global community, the world was too interconnected to reliably isolate and contain the disease, and the death toll rose daily. In those early days, rife with restrictions and health protocols, all everyone talked about was the vaccine. Scores of pharmaceutical companies worked on developing an effective countermeasure that could immunize the population and defeat the pandemic. Politicians campaigned on promises of the vaccine becoming widely available before the end of the year, and everyone bated their breath and kept sane by thinking about how life would return to normal soon.
But 2021 arrived with little fanfare and delays in the medical trials, and safety measures continued to be the only, if minimally effective, way to curb the virus. Soon, automation replaced most non-emergency essential jobs, with robots stocking food stores and kiosks replacing salespeople. Unemployment grew steadily and the government was forced to offer universal income to stop the daily riots of people who had nothing left to lose. The election in late 2020 had gone in a way nobody could have predicted, and the “elected” government consisted of nobody who had been on the ballot. Everything felt hopeless and returning to normal seemed like a cruel joke that enraged every time it was repeated.
And then, the most unexpected thing happened. After endless delays and countless setbacks that made the whole endeavor seem like a lost cause, a vaccine was approved. The trials had been enormously successful, with 99.9% immunity, and all recorded side-effects were so mild as to seem negligible. Production was fast-tracked worldwide, and lotteries assisted with fair distribution. Within 6 months of vaccine approval, 60% of the world’s population had been immunized, with the rest slated for vaccination before the new year.
2022: The world brought in the new year with rabid excitement, finally able to partake in activities that had been banned for nearly two years. Huge celebrations erupted in all major cities, and people felt like they were truly alive again, as if they had woken from the deepest sleep, Snow White-style. Of course, there were many pandemic changes to adjust to normal world functioning, including employment and education restructuring, governmental role implications, and so forth, but nothing seemed insurmountable after conquering the pandemic.
The death surge was just a trickle at first, scattered across the globe and therefore harder to place within the emerging pattern. But just like the virus, it seemed to spread exponentially. Yet unlike the virus, it appeared to leave no survivors. In short order, communities worldwide deduced that the deaths were associated with the vaccine – but not everyone who had been immunized died, just most of them. The unpredictable nature of the cause-of-death pattern among vaccinated individuals caused a blinding panic. People were used to taking precautions when the threat was outside of themselves, but they had no idea what to do when the danger was already inside.
And so life went on, sort of. No one knew when or how the next wave of deaths would hit, or how to prevent it. The government and pharmaceutical companies had gone silent. Top executives had faded into the background, no longer the vocal advocates of… anything. The world waited tensely, never quite daring to let out the breath it seemed to be holding.
* * *
Lacy peered around the corner and frowned. A man stood motionless in front of the door, facing slightly away from her and looking down. What was he doing? She couldn’t quite see, but there was definitely not supposed to be a security officer here. Her intel until this point had been good, so she was surprised that the team had gotten something wrong.
Slinking backwards, she checked the map again. Yep, this was the right wing of the building and that was definitely the right door. All in all, an unsuspecting door; it was labeled only with “Authorized Access Required” above a keypad where she would scan the ID card she’d swiped from the administrative offices. Hardly the kind of door you’d expect to have secrets behind it. Hardly the kind of door that might lead to evidence proving one of the craziest conspiracy theories Lacy had ever heard. Lacy shook her head slightly. She had to admit that everything had fallen into place exactly as they had said it would and her doubts had faded. The whole operation had gone to plan thus far – well, except for this hiccup.
She stole another glance at the man blocking her way. He didn’t seem to have moved a muscle. With his head craning down at that angle, his neck must be getting stiff. She grimaced empathetically, retreated once again, and took a deep breath. The team had emphasized multiple times that this evening had been planned meticulously, and that if there was any delay, it would all be for naught. She had no choice but to follow through, despite this new unknown.
The man looked up as she rounded the corner. As they made eye contact, he blushed and stretched his neck. He turned toward her and she could see his phone cradled in his hand. He grinned bashfully and flashed the screen at her so she could see.
“Candy Crush,” he sighed, slipping his phone in his pocket, “it’s so addicting.”
“I feel you,” Lacy nodded and gave him a half smile.
“Well, I better get on to my shift,” he gestured with his thumb and shifted on his feet.
“Have a good night.” Lacy watched him head down the hallway before approaching the door. As soon as he was out of sight, she dug around in her pockets, unearthed the keycard, and tapped it to the keypad. There was a short electronic beep and an audible clunk as the door unlocked. Glancing down the hallway once again – there was no one in sight – she pressed down on the handle and the door swung open.
The fluorescent lights buzzed as they flickered on, illuminating a small office space. To her left was a wall of filing cabinets that spanned the length of the wall. Several computers sat on desks that lined the opposite walls, and in the middle of the room was a large table covered in all manners of boxes, files, and notebooks. She unclipped the flash drive from her belt loop, and made her way over to the computers, letting the door slam shut behind her. This was it.
“This isn’t right.”
The thought sprang forth from her unconscious mind as she stopped herself just shy from inserting the flash drive into the mainframe as instructed by Simon, the almost cartoonishly nebbish man whom she had spent months working as an asset before finally bringing him into the fold of VI3.
“This is too easy. This isn’t right.”
Her thoughts turned to her first meeting with Simon. It was a textbook honeypot. She’d spent weeks searching for the right mark — single male, few friends, with security clearance level 4 to Vance Pharmaceuticals Research Lab. Simon fit the bill. He was a slight man, standing 5’6” on his tiptoes, and he’d barely register 140lbs on a scale if he were holding 10lb dumbbells in each neatly manicured hand. His daily routine was just that — routine. He never deviated:
6am: Exits third floor walk up building in freshly pressed khaki and white oxford combination. The only variation was the color of his plaid tie and matching socks.
6:15am: Stops at news stand around the northern corner of his block to purchase coffee (black), bagel (plain), and newspaper (The Post)– always paying the $9.75 in cash, with exact change.
6:45am: Catches the downtown subway at the Bleeker St. stop.
7:15am: Exits train at 110th st, throws away coffee cup and napkin in receptacle by the stairs, and folds the paper crisply to its original position before taking the stairs to the surface and heading west.
7:30am: Arrives at front entrance of the Vance building and briskly moves through security, exchanging a brief nod with Andy, the basset-hound-looking security guard.
7:35am: Uses key card to enter his office, quickly closing the door behind him. The officious-looking plaque on the door reads: Simon Mueller, Data Security.
She chose to intercept after Simon had paid for his morning staples. She thought a classic damsel in distress would do the trick. As he turned – paper folded under his right arm, bagel in left hand, coffee in the right – there she stood.
She had decided, along with input from a half dozen security officers, that she’d wear her strawberry blonde curls up for the occasion, so that when the collision occurred, they would fall gently around her angular cheeks, framing her emerald eyes as they met Simon’s own nervous brown ones.
From there it was clockwork. Lacy remembered thinking at the time that the very idea of free will was comical. Poor Simon. No choice he made from this point forward was his own. He was clay being molded in a master’s hand.
“This is too easy. This isn’t right.”
She couldn’t shake the idea that maybe it was not Simon who had been ensnared. What had she missed? What was she missing?
She flashed back to the blank expression on his face that crisp March morning, the one that she had perceived as nervous and unsure. Lacy had always been aware of the effect she had on men, but only from a purely curious perspective, and with a sense that it was just another tool in her arsenal. She had known from a young age that men were only useful to her in one capacity: how they could be exploited for her to advance her career. Simon was no different. They had spent the past month in a state of new-love bliss, with Lacy assuming the role of ingenue and muse that had been missing from Simon’s world for so long he didn’t even know it was a thing he needed. She had played the part without misstep: from the first conversation where she subtly squeezed his bicep to steady herself after his coffee doused her, to impressing his sister with her risotto the night she dropped by unexpectedly for dinner. Lacy was the perfect woman for Simon. Her brain flipped through the internal catalogue of their interactions with lightning speed, searching for any moment that felt off or uncomfortable, and she came up empty.
A buzz on her wrist jolted her out of this brief reverie, and she decided that in this moment, there was nothing left to lose. If she was caught, it was going to happen already, so she might as well attempt to complete her assignment because, if not, it could mean the end of humanity as they knew it. She inserted her jump drive into the first computer, pausing briefly when it asked for the biometric password to carefully peel back the cover on her latent fingerprint copy and press it to the screen. Exhaling, she realized for the first time that she had been afraid to breathe for the last sixty-odd seconds. As the computer unlocked itself and the files began to stream to the flash drive, she glanced around the office. Nothing seemed out of place, or gave her any reason to worry.
“Calm down, Lacy,” she whispered to herself. She began to relax and hoped that her momentary panic was caused by nothing other than the heightened sense of living in a world that felt as though she were frantically being hurtled towards the end, and the gravity of knowing she may be staring at the answer.
The rest of her mission went without incident, and she was actually beginning to enjoy herself as she stepped into the warm June night, whistling as she strode down the street with the jump drive safely in her possession.
After a brief stop at the drop point, a Post Office box on the Upper East Side, she decided to splurge on takeout from Simon’s favorite Thai place and grab a Lyft home. She was smiling when she finally walked in the door to his apartment at 8:34PM. “I’ve got a surprise for you,” she said as she entered the tiny third floor walk-up, dropping the takeout on the kitchen table and looking around the empty living area. “Simon?” She heard the shower running and for a moment, fear gripped her as she worried what she was going to find when she opened the door. He hadn’t answered her. “Sweetie?” she said as she gently pushed the door open to a cloud of steam escaping, the tendrils curling towards her like ghostly fingers. There was a scream, and she screamed back.
“Jesus Christ, Lacy,” came his familiar voice from the shower, followed by his strangely endearing androgynous giggle. “You scared the mess out of me!” His brown eyes peered around the shower curtain, narrowing to a squint so he could see her without his glasses. “That is you, right?”
“Uh, yes, of course,” she said nervously. “Were you expecting someone else?” She affected the slightest hint of jealousy in her voice, knowing Simon was smart enough to clue into it and think she meant another woman.
“Oh, please,” he grinned. “You know since the moment we met I haven’t even glanced at anyone else.” He ducked his head back in the curtain and said, “I’m almost done. What do you want for dinner? It’s my night to treat you.”
She lingered in the doorway, realizing that she actually felt a sense of relief that he was alive. This feeling was new to her. After all, he was just a mark. She had gotten what she needed and now her only job was to hang around long enough to ensure her team had all of the right information and then she was to cut and run without a trace. If he disappeared, it would make that part easier. “I actually picked up your favorite on the way home from work,” she said.
The shower stopped and Simon’s slender hand reached out for his towel. He was grinning when he stepped towards her, lightly kissing her nose. “I knew I had been storing karma up all these years, but I still don’t know how I managed to have a woman like you just fall into my lap. You are the absolute best, Lacy, you know that?” He breezed past her to enter the bedroom and get dressed, leaving her to stand in the steamy bathroom alone. For a moment, she couldn’t get a breath in, the wet air hanging heavy around her and coating the back of her throat, where a bitter taste began to develop. She finally gasped when she realized what she was feeling: guilt.
This was not a familiar emotion for Lacy. Unaccustomed to receiving affection and kindness since an early age, she rarely felt empathy, warmth, or obligation towards others. Just a few moments earlier, her mind was preoccupied with the next step on her meticulously planned out agenda: covering her tracks, eliminating evidence, and extracting herself from this ridiculous charade, this unnatural game of house she has been playing with Simon for the past several weeks for the sake of her mission. But now, oddly, Lacy found herself wondering about the expression on his face the moment he realizes that he was nothing but a means to an end, and that the woman he has naively, deeply fallen for has disappeared from his miserable life without a trace, without consideration for his person. She imagined the way his brow would furrow above his blank, darkening eyes; his thumb and index finger would pinch the bridge of his nose the way they do in moments of perplexity, like when he painstakingly strives to remember a trivial detail about the nonexistent family she’s told him so much about. Except this time, he would not perk up happily the moment he recalls what he is seeking, beaming with the excitement of a puppy fetching a beloved ball. This time, his frowned face would deepen into an ugly, piteous scrunch, silent tears would dampen his glasses, and he would sink down to the kitchen floor, rocking himself slowly, as he cowers in dread of the return to his former dull and passionless existence. Shockingly, and for what felt like the first time in her life, Lacy felt Simon’s impending heartbreak.
Get a grip! She thought to herself. Now is not the time to go soft. Where the hell is this coming from? What was it that set Simon apart from the dozens of men who served Lacy’s ambitions and purposes in the past? Perhaps it was his extraordinarily gentle demeanor, or maybe the fact that his devotion to her was so fervent and innocent. Perhaps it was an unexpected change within herself. She did not know.
She turned on the faucet and submerged as much of her face as would fit into the small bathroom sink. She willed the harsh and frigid current to bring her out of whatever sappy stupor she managed to fall into. She rose, wiped her face, and stared at her reflection in the mirror, trying to locate the hard, unsentimental badass she has prided herself on being her whole life. Looking back at her was a Lacy she has not seen in many years. The watery eyes, red nose, and quivering lower lip all belonged to the child who died a long time ago, before the girl crawled out into precarious adulthood, before the woman clawed her way into the elite ranks of the ancient order of world guardians, known only as VI3.
Lacy has devoted most of her life to this clandestine organization, which was all that stood between humanity and extinction on countless occasions throughout history. It was VI3 that rigged the American elections in 2020, preventing an inevitable World War III, which would have plunged the world into nuclear fallout. It was VI3 that headed the discovery of the COVID-19 vaccine, meant to save billions of people and return hope to the world. Of course, these efforts were undone when the vaccine development and distribution was compromised by the powerful corporations that profited from the deadly virus. And now, with the human population rapidly waning, it was up to VI3 to make things right again.
Lacy willed herself to refocus on the mission, knowing how crucial it is to the salvation of countless lives. She had to get the flash drive back to headquarters before it was too late, and she did not have time to hesitate. She would extract herself from Simon’s life; she would leave no evidence of her presence in it. She would return to her true identity, devoted to protecting the world from itself, and she would rip out all traces of sentiment that has weeded its way into her heart. Determined, she wiped the tears and water off her face, mustered a nonchalant smile, and exited the bathroom to find Simon dressed and making her a plate of takeout.
In the next 24 hours, as she covertly packed her belongings and methodically removed all clues about her existence from Simon’s apartment, Lacy tried her best to get excited about the successful end to her mission, and about the next assignment that is likely already waiting for her back at VI3. She strongly believed in the importance of her work; she was proud of the crucial duty she shared with her team. Still, the pesky thought of the innocent, simple, and loving Simon lingered in Lacy’s mind. She could not help but wonder what her future would look like if this mission became her last. If she delivered the package, along with a resignation note, and returned to Simon, telling him the whole truth, begging him to forgive her deceit, and starting life from scratch. With him. Of course, they would have to flee, escaping retribution from the order and hiding for the rest of their lives in anonymity, but this was not a daunting task, given Lacy’s skill set. She imagined a small beach hut, made of straw and palm leaves, with a couple of hammocks strung up in its shade. She imagined waking up in Simon’s arms, feeling his quiet snores ruffle her hair. Trying not to wake him, she would wriggle out of bed, and walk out towards the ocean, feeling the fine sand between her toes and the rising sun on her face. She would breathe in the salty air and listen to the quiet of her mind, finally free from the torrent of thoughts and cares about the fate of the world. She would live for herself – and for Simon; she would set down the burden that has defined her identity as a world guardian.
“This is too easy; it isn’t right,” a scornful voice rang out in her head. The familiar phrase that seemed to have defined much of Lacy’s philosophy on life now extended to this misguided musing. The alternative existence she unwittingly started to envision for herself did not fit in with her mantra of self-sacrifice for the greater public good. She felt herself scoffing at the idea of a simple life, a life devoid of danger and devoted solely to the individual pursuit of happiness. She could not let herself become the person she has always resented, the type who chooses easy over right. Even if VI3 managed to reverse the deadly effects of the botched COVID cure, there would come other disasters and threats that humanity would need salvation from. Lacy knew that she could not simply leave the fate of the world to chance. And so she packed, deleted all personal data from Simon’s computer, and wiped down everything she’s ever touched in his apartment. She waited until Simon fell asleep and snuck out to the waiting getaway car, ashamed of the persistent urge to run back and bury her face in his armpit.
It is only weeks later, when the world was finally on track to return to a semblance of normal — and Lacy felt like she got herself past the silly, romantic notions of a beach with Simon — that fate took the most jarring turn.
She missed a period. And then another. And even when the nausea started, Lacy still stubbornly refused to believe that she was no longer alone inside her own body. When she finally acquiesced to a test and received the dreaded confirmation, her first impulse was to purge herself of this parasite. She laughed bitterly at her ironic attempts to leave no trace of herself in Simon’s life, while unwittingly retaining a crucial piece of him.
But then, determination turned to doubt, and the Lacy that appeared briefly in Simon’s bathroom mirror began to find her voice and speak out against her dominant counterpart.
Let go, she whispered. For years, you’ve lived for other people. For years, you put their millions of lives above your own. And whether those millions were saved or lost, your one life mattered to no one. Perhaps it’s time to matter, to be selfish, to live for you and yours alone. Stop climbing — do you not see that there is no end to your ambitious ladder? Stop guarding — do you not see that the world will keep on turning without your watchful eye?
For the first time in her life, Lacy found herself happily defeated. She looked back on her life of duty and valor, full of what was right and never easy. She disappeared, lost to a tragic accident, killed in action.
In a distant land, another woman was born. She cared not for the human world as it burned itself towards extinction; her own world was small and insignificant and sacred. Every now and then, as she watched her young son chase seagulls, she would think of the victims of the latest man-made tragedy, and wonder if there is anyone left to save them. But that would be all that is — a wonder. She would shake off these thoughts, and run into the tide towards the most joyous burden of her life, to scoop him up into her arms, and laugh and spin among the waves.