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 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 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 her here 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 whit 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 it’s 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 se- curity 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 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 shed 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 is she missing?
* * *
A floodlight flashed on. Bright, heavy, harsh; pinning her, exposing her.
Her palms galvanized with sweat. She tightened her grip on the flash drive, the only thing that seemed real. She whirled around, her vision red with adrenaline and retinal burn. “Hello, Lacy.” Simon sat behind a desk. “I’m glad you’re here. I have a few questions for you.” He paused, then spoke into a radio. “Yes, Leon, thank you, she got here. I told you she would. You can go back to Candy Crush now.” She felt Simon’s words, not in her ears, but as a slap to her face that made her reel.
She glanced desperately at the flash drive in her hand. He noticed. “Go ahead,” he said with a shrug. “Put it in.”
Uncertainty froze her muscles and her mind. He saw this too.
“No words? I have more questions, then. What does VI3 stand for?”
She blinked. She blinked again. Her mouth moved, but it failed to make words. She searched her memory. She could not remember anyone ever telling her. No one had acted as if it mattered what organization she belonged to or what they wanted.
He spoke as if he already knew. “It never seemed important, did it? How interesting. I wonder why you didn’t ask.” But his bored tone told her that he didn’t wonder that at all. “Let’s try a better one. What was your objective in this mission?”
Lacy approached the threshold of panic. How was it possible that she had never heard her goal? She had a flash drive and a slot to put it into. After that … what? Why would VI3, whatever that was, send her here without making it clear what the hell she was supposed to accomplish? Why didn’t she know? What did she think she was going to do? Why hadn’t it occurred to her that it mattered?
“Go ahead,” Simon murmured again. “Insert the flash drive, then all this pain will end.” He knew his words were hurting her. He shook his head, allowing contempt to show, as the drive fell from her trembling fingers. She wanted to scream for mercy.
“What’s your background? When did you join VI3? What do they want? Who recruited you? What’s your last name?” He paused, staring deeply. She knew he could see the tectonic shift within her. Simon had no pity. “Do you have any backstory at all? What can you remember from last year? Anything? You never even bothered to think about it, did you?”
Lacy remained mute. The trembling within her soul threatened to tear her to pieces. Simon’s assault continued. “But you know me in minute detail, don’t you? You know me down to the most tedious detail of my daily schedule. Why do you think someone provided all that specific information about me, but none at all about you, your goals, or your life?”
Lacy fought for speech, and finally grasped at the only words she could access. “I’m real! I exist! I recruited you!”
“If you were real, you’d know who you are. But you don’t, because I never bothered creating a real identity for you. All I gave you was a story about a pandemic and an errand to perform. You’re an experiment. I created you. You’ve existed for two weeks, a constructed consciousness in someone else’s discarded meatframe. Every memory you have, I put there, and there aren’t that many. Your thoughts are nothing but a loosely connected set of threads that I wove into a pattern … a nice, lacy pattern.”
Lacy wasn’t sure her heart was still beating. Even her name was part of the lie. How had she not noticed how incomplete she was? She bent down, stabbing at the floor with her arms, hunting for the flash drive, finding it somehow. She shoved it into the USB port, connecting on the third attempt.
“Now push the green button,” Simon said, but she already knew. She was already jabbing clumsily at the button. A light blinked on the mainframe as she connected. Her consciousness was transferred into the computer’s memory and erased from her own. The body she had briefly inhabited collapsed onto the floor.
“Subject self-terminated after becoming aware,” Simon wrote in his journal. “Experiment successful.”