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 asset 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 eyes.
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.
“Simon, I need to tell you–” she blurted before catching herself.
“Tell me what?” he called from the bedroom.
“Get a grip, Lacy,” she thought. “You’re stopping a global democide, and all you have to do is ruin one innocent man’s life in every possible way. How is this even a problem?”
“Actually, it’s another surprise… for later tonight. But you’re gonna have to wait for it,” she said, appearing in the doorway with a sly grin. Simon returned her look with a wide-eyed grin, his imagination cycling through a thousand carnal scenarios.
“Giving him one last wild night to ease your conscience? Lacy, you’re going soft,” she scolded to herself.
Much later that night, she lay awake, Simon sleeping a deep, contented sleep at her side. She had just sent a code word to an anonymous 5-digit phone number, signaling the cleanup team–waiting a few units down the hallway–to stand ready.
She reached inside her pillow and retrieved the syringe, wrapped in a piece of cloth. She pulled the safety cap off and stared at the instrument.
“Needle in neck. Press plunger. Let the team in. Take the stairs. Exit to alley. Black SUV is waiting.” she recited to herself. Just these last few tasks and she was home free.
Her breathing quickened.
“Needle in neck. Press plunger…He doesn’t deserve this. No, it has to be done. Needle in neck. Press plunger. Wait, there’s got to be another way. He deserves…”
“Have you lost your nerve?” A man’s voice eminated from a tall, imposing silhouette standing at the foot of the bed. Lacy screamed.
“What? What the fuck?” Simon shouted, bolting awake.
After many moments of panic, Lacy regained her senses enough to reach for the nightstand and fumble with the lamp. Darkness giving way to light, the dark figure was illuminated. Standing over an almost-naked Lacy and Simon was the Candy Crush-addicted security guard whom Lacy had encountered at the Vance research lab.
“Hi, Lacy, nice to see you again,” the man said.
“Who the fuck are you?” Simon asked, throwing on his glasses.
“Simon, at the moment I’m your guardian angel,” he said, gesturing at Lacy.
As if Simon couldn’t be any more disturbed, the sight of his lover, wielding a hypodermic syringe, in his bed, was too much to process at once.
“What do you want,” Lacy asked, having regained some composure.
“Lacy, I want you not murder this manlet whom you’ve just fucked senseless. And if it’s not too much trouble, tell your clean-up crew to abort their mission.”
“Lacy, what is he talking about?” Simon asked.
“Simon…I…”, Lacy trailed off, her head spinning. Who the fuck was this guy? Had her cover been completely blown? Could she salvage this? Does this guy even have a weapon?
“Begging your pardon,” the man said, “I need you to call off your team before you continue. I apologize for not making that clear earlier.”
Lacy stared at the man, trying to gague the level of threat in his demeanor.
“Oh, and make sure you don’t accidentally send them some sort of distress code. We’ll know based on how they respond, and you’ll be making extra mess.”
His posture, his voice, his confidence…this man was not playing mind games, and Lacy calculated that she was, in fact, in mortal danger. Especially because…
“There is no abort code. If you know who I am then you know that tonight was for all the marbles,” Lacy stared. “Failing here, now…nothing else will matter in the morning.”
“Lacy, what the FUCK is going on?” Simon demanded.
Still staring at Lacy, the man replied, “Simon, you don’t get to know what’s going on. You’re in the middle of the highest-stakes chess match in history. You, me, Lacy, we’re so small that we aren’t even pawns. All you need to know is your girlfriend used you to steal a shitload of sensitive data that you are paid to protect. We knew you’d been compromised but we didn’t know by whom, until Lacy showed up at your office tonight.”
“Lace, you…” Simon trailed off.
“Simon, I’m so sorry,” Lacy said.
“Simon,” the man said, finally shifting his gaze, “As much as you’ve shown poor judgment, we need you alive and well, and working for Vance. As for Lacy, here, she’s going to be–“
THWACK. The man’s attention on Simon was the opening Lacy needed, and she capitalized by hurling her smartphone directly into the bridge of the man’s nose, stunning him. Before the phone had even reached the man’s face, Lacy was rolling out of the bed, leaping around the corner of the bed frame, and lunging for him. The man, surprised and in pain, did not notice Lacy until she was shoulder-smashing her full weight into the side of his body. Nor did he notice the syringe.
Needle in neck.
The man screamed from the shock and pain of the metal spike, and then from the cold rush of god-knows-what drug being delivered into his body. He reflexively punched Lacy so hard that her head whipped backwards for a moment. He screamed again, this time fueled by rage, as he grabbed Lacy and pummeled her with strike after strike.
Lacy endured, avoiding his onslaught of attacks as best as she could, not wasting energy on a counterattack; The poison would kick in soon. One way or another he would be dead in less than a minute.
At some point during this struggle, Simon had rolled out of bed and scrambled over. He began to kick the man in the head, unsure of what else to do.
The sixty-second life expectancy of the man dragged on for an eternity, but his limbs gradually lost their energy, the punches becoming weak flails of the arm, his grip on Lacy weakening. Growing weaker and less alert by the moment, he finally realized that the syringe was still in his neck. A corner of his mind–not yet succumbing to the inevitable–told him that pulling the syringe out would be a good idea. In the man’s last moments of life, he did reach towards his neck before the fatigue conquered him, embracing him in the most pleasant slumber from which he would never awake.
The next few minutes were a blur.
Whatever had just happened, the entire plan was now shot to complete and utter shit.
Lacy shouted at Simon to get dressed and throw some clothes in a bag.
If someone knew Lacy was coming, why did they let her steal the files? And drop them off?
The cleaning crew smashed through the apartment door, having heard some sort of commotion. Simon was alive and this strange new man was dead. Confused questions were shouted. New plans were formed.
If someone knew Lacy was coming, did that mean the data she stole was fake? Had the entire mission been sabotaged before it even began?
Lacy and Simon ran out of the apartment and down the staircase. The cleanup crew stayed behind to identify the body and await further orders.
In the alleyway, Lacy and Simon got into the black SUV, which made a hasty exit from the scene.
Why did they let Simon be used as bait, only to step in and protect him?
Not much was said during the car ride to the airport. Simon was in a mild state of shock. Lacy was thinking about many different things.
What were they supposed to do now?
Parked on the tarmac, Lacy dragged Simon towards the private jet that Lacy was supposed to board alone.
“Lacy, what is this?”
“Simon, they want you alive and they’re trying to kill off the human race. I need you as far away from their radar as possible. Get the fuck on the plane.”
“Was it all a lie?” Simon asked, not moving from his spot.
“There’s no time for this.”
“At least tell me where we’re going.”
Lacy stepped towards Simon. “Get on the plane. You know I can make you.”
Simon, resigned, boarded the jet, Lacy right behind.
Many hours later, the plane was at cruising altitude and the sunrise filled the cabin with warm, orange light. Simon, sitting as far away from Lacy as possible, was less than thrilled as Lacy approached.
“What do you want?” He asked.
“I’m ready to answer your question. “
“Okay, where are we going?” He asked, no longer invested in the answer.
“Somewhere safe. I meant I was ready to answer your other question. You asked if it was all a lie.”
“Lacy, don’t fuck with me. I already know it was. I just didn’t want to admit it.”
Lacy sighed. “Simon, most of it was a lie. You’re right. I manipulated you and used you and I was ready to kill you so that we could have a shot at stopping this fucking genocide vaccine. Except, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t kill you.”
“How flattering,” Simon sneered.
“I realized you deserved better than what I’d done to you. Maybe it was a selfish thought, because…the truth is, you’re the closest thing I’ve had to a real relationship or a real friend in a very long time. Would we work out as a legitimate couple? Probably not. We’re so different from each other. But right now, more than ever, we need each other. It’s fucked up and idiotic and messy, but we need to be together on some level so we aren’t fighting alone.”