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 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.
Her stomach churned with nerves as she sat at the first computer on the right. Lacy hit Control-Alt-Delete and the computer came to life, asking her to enter a username and password.
She pulled up the text message she had received earlier that night and set the phone on the table.
“Ok. James dot Anderson. Password123!,” Lacy muttered, “Seriously? I guess someone didn’t pay attention to his IT security training course.”
The familiar Windows desktop screen appeared. Breathing a sigh of relief, Lacy plugged the flash drive into the computer and got to work.
Documents. Official Statements. August 2022. Bingo.
There it was, Friday’s CDC press release, typed and ready to go. And with it, sitting innocently in the folder, was a Word document titled “Supporting Documentation.”
Lacy chuckled. It appeared the government bureaucrats really were as uninventive as one imagined them to be.
Lacy dragged the files to the flash drive icon, the first part of her mission complete.
Now came the hard part: Finding the email chain to prove the conspiracy theory was true.
Opening James Anderson’s Outlook, Lacy was met with an overpopulated Inbox and no discernable filing system. This was going to take some time. And time was something she didn’t have a lot of.
“Ok. Keywords. ‘Vaccine’. Ok. Only 250 emails. How about ‘Vaccine Cover-up’? Fifteen! Now we’re onto something.”
A quick save on each of the fifteen, and a quick scan of the original 250 and she could get out of there and head home to dig deeper into the documents from the safety of her apartment. Nice and easy.
Midway through the 250 emails, she saw it. An email from Michael Granderson, the CEO of Tetrapharm, the architects of the vaccine. Odd that he would be reaching out to the junior member of the CDC press office.
Great talking to you yesterday. I was pleased to hear that you understand our conundrum and that your team is willing to help us out here. The media cycle has really taken hold of rumors and is blowing things out of proportion and we need your backing to calm the rising seas. If we can shut this down now and redirect the focus to other issues, it can buy us some time and hopefully get things under control. After all, the right people won’t be impacted.
“What the fuck is going on,” breathed Lacy, “Jesus. Those nutjobs might just be onto something with their theory.”
Saving the email, Lacy ejected the drive, gathered her things together, and shut down the computer. She headed toward the door, when she heard an unmistakable sound from the hallway outside the lab.
Lacy froze for a split second, not sure what to do next. She glanced around the room, searching for a good hiding spot. Out of desperation, she ran for a desk furthest from the door and hoped that whoever came in wouldn’t be looking too carefully around the room. Maneuvering behind the small cabinet attached to the desk and positioning the chair in front of her, she waited.
She could hear the soft sound of keys jangling around and then the squeak of the door handle turning. Lacy evaluated her options—depending on who walked in and which desk they walked to, she may have to knock them out. She planned out a few paths quickly, calculating multiple scenarios as quick as her mind could go.
Finally the door creaked open.
She couldn’t see their face yet but from behind she could tell it was a man. She quickly assessed the situation again. He seemed to be fumbling with putting his key card into his pocket and hadn’t turned around yet. She could see his broad frame underneath his tight dress shirt—he was muscular—but more lean than anything else. She was willing to take her chances. If she hurried, she could rush up him behind him, wrap her legs around his neck and knock him out within seconds and he wouldn’t even be able to see her face.
Lacy swallowed and pushed out from behind the desk, her heart pounding inside her chest.
Just as she reached him, pushing off the ground into a jump, he turned around. Thrown off by his movement, Lacy was unable to stop and ended up colliding into him, causing both of them to fall over.
Recognition appeared on his face. His eyes wide and his mouth opened.
Lacy assumed the same look was on hers.
There she was—on an extremely important mission to collect sensitive data, data that would literally change the world—and who does she stumble into but her ex-boyfriend, Tony?
“Lacy?” He sat up, his voice soft. His brows furrowed in disbelief. “You’re alive?”
The last time they had seen each other was years ago. They had broken up before the virus had erupted. It had nothing to do with the world, nothing to really even do with him. He had been nothing but nice to her. Lacy just had been unprepared for something so serious—something that felt so permanent—and not being able to tell him the truth about her job or what she did.
From then on, Lacy had focused on staying solo, and she hadn’t touched any sort of social media since. Though she may have looked different, Tony looked mostly the same. He ditched the clean shaven look for a short beard and the bags under his eyes indicated some late, stress filled nights. But otherwise, he looked just as good, maybe even better, than the last time she had saw him.
Lacy had faced guns in her face, literal threats of world destruction, kidnappings, even torture, but she wasn’t ready for this. She was lost for words. Everything came rushing back. The horrors of the last few years. The people she had lost. The mourning she had already done for him.
She had assumed that Tony was dead too.
Lacy didn’t realize she was doing it but she found her hand gently stroking his face. She was touching him. He was real. He was alive.
The room was silent but the sound of their heavy breathing.
“It’s you. It’s really you.” He wrapped his arms around her and she felt him inhale her scent. “Thank God.”
Lacy thought back to all those times years ago when he would do the same. He would rub her back in bed after a long day of work—consulting, she told him—and hold her against his chest until she felt the strain of the day melt away.
She could feel that happening now. She needed to shake herself out of it. She pushed him away. The mission. Get out of here with the data. Tony is not important. The information is. This information could change everything.
“Tony, what are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same question.”
They were at a standstill. Tony broke first. His eyes softened and he spoke.
“What have you been doing the last few years? How’s your parents? Your sister?”
Lacy shook her head. Her sister had lasted until the vaccine. Her parents were lost to the virus.
“My dad is still alive. We have a cabin upstate. I deliver him food every two weeks. He’s safe. Never even got the vaccination.”
Lacy took a second to let that sink in. Tony still had family. It was just her who was completely alone. She needed to think of the bigger picture. Get out of here with the files and don’t let anyone get in her way. Not even Tony.
“Why are you here, Tony?” Lacy asked again, this time her voice firm.
Tony shifted uncomfortably and looked around the room as if expecting someone to jump out of one of the large filing cabinets.
“Not here,” he mumbled out of the side of his mouth.
Tony didn’t look back at her as he crossed the room to one of the computers.
“I alread-,” Lacy started to say as he sat down at James Andersons’ computer. Tony gave her one glance and put his finger to his mouth. Tony didn’t need a USB; he connected his phone directly to the computer, pulled up a coding platform, and uploaded something from his phone to the computer. Lacy watched with fascination. What side was he on?
“Come on,” Tony said after he pulled his phone unceremoniously from the computer. “I’ll explain everything upstate.”
“But my team? My mission? I had a job to do.”
Tony had a sympathetic, half-smile on his face as if he were telling a joke to a child. “The Wingers? Yeah, they don’t exist as of 8:36PM. And there’s nothing but blank files on that USB in your pocket.”
“I don’t —”
Tony sighed. “Listen. You can either trust me and learn what is actually going on or go back to that cult. Although I have to tell you, Geo is no more.” Tony let out a bark of a laugh at the thought.
“Geo has helped me more than you know!”
“Geo is a lunatic.”
Lacy knew Geo was eccentric, but it was all in the name of the truth! Right? I mean, that’s what she thought she was following. The truth. It had always been about conspiracy theories, but they were true theories. They were true. They were true. They were true. Weren’t they?
“Here, come with me,” Tony said, grabbing her wrist, opening the door, and checking the hallway. They ran down the hallway and outside to a covert SUV parked in the alley. If it hadn’t turned on as they approached, Lacy wouldn’t have known it was there.
“If it’ll make you feel better, here’s the news.” She fastened her seatbelt right as he handed her his phone, open to the only trustworthy news source, The Rogue.
The headline read: “The Wingers Agency Crumbles; Northeastern Leader ‘Geo’ Admits to Hoodwinking Others.”
Lacy gulped down the information in disbelief. How could Geo have screwed this all up? It said in the piece that he told the authorities he did it all for money. Money? Really? The guy who went to Starbucks and got refills in his thermos?
“Fortunately, I caught Geo before the authorities did and he told me what “mission” he had sent you on,” Tony said before mumbling something incoherent to the driver. “And the security guard playing Candy Crush —”
“Hello there,” a man turned around in the front seat and gave her an ironic one-handed salute. Lacy could see that he was still playing Candy Crush on his phone.
“—is my colleague, Reuben.”
“Did you upload the documents?” Reuben asked, tearing his eyes away from his phone.
“You uploaded it?” a woman in the front seat turned around, her black hat could hardly contain her shock of curly hair. “Great job, Tony!” Tony leaned forward and kissed her head.
“You can call me Bee,” she said turning to Lacy, “or Secret Agent 782.”
“But, but…” the pieces seemed to take an extremely long time to fall into place in Lacy’s head. She felt like she was running through molasses to get to the truth. A new girlfriend? An agent… “You’re the agent who texted me the password? You worked for The Wingers? Like me!”
Bee’s eyes were back on the road and her face was half in shadow as they drove down a deserted, suburban street. Bee let out a chuckle.
“We led you here to save you, Lacy. There is no conspiracy. The vaccine wor—”
“Not here!” Tony interrupted her, not even glancing up from his phone. “Wait until we get to my father and Dr. Chifa, the documents haven’t been made public yet.”
No one spoke after that. The only sounds in the car were mumbles from Bee about the other drivers on the road and Reuben’s phone, which, annoyingly, had the sound on just barely enough to bother everyone in the vicinity.
Lacy must have fallen asleep at some point, because it was the sun that woke her up. There was no one else in the car and she was covered with a thin, scratchy blanket. Out the front windows she could see nothing but trees.
“Where did she get her training?” Lacy recognized Bee’s voice from outside the car as she opened the door. “Morning, Sunshine.”
“Thanks,” Lacy mumbled, wiping away any residual drool from her mouth. She could just make out a clearing not ten feet away where there were several people bundled around a fire.
“Join us, join us!” Tony’s father yelled from the fire pit, “It’s a cold morning.”
Lacy’s fingers and toes suddenly came back to life as she sat down by the fire. Tony and Bee were sharing a blanket and Reuben was still on his phone playing Candy Crush. The two men nearest them in the circle were older, one balding and one with wispy gray hair peeking out from under a ball cap. Lacy recognized the bald one as Tony’s father who she’d only met on one gloriously awkward occasion and the other she didn’t know at all, but only gaped at him.
“You can call me Lenny,” Dr. Chifa said, extending his hand.
“What’s going on?” Lacy said, half-grasping Lenny’s hand.
“Well, it’s all over now!” Tony’s father said, “would you like some eggs. I left them on the warmer for you.”
“I don’t under-understand,” Lacy stammered, looking at Tony and then the rest of the group as if it were their fault that her brain wasn’t working properly.
“So, the vaccine always worked,” Dr. Chifa sighed, as if he had said this sentence multiple times throughout the years. “It was The Wingers Agency that ever made it seem like it didn’t. Did you know they were murdering people? We kept as many people safe as we could, and with our mission last night, we’ve finally released the right documents to the public. The CDC has the truth, and Michael Ganderson has been replaced with, well, not a crazy winger. The accurate results from the 2020 election have been counted and the government will soon have it’s proper president residing.”
“All in all, a good night, I would say,” Reuben snickered into his phone.
“But my sister! She died of the vaccine. You can’t tell me that that didn’t happen.”
“Oh Clarisse!” Dr. Chifa yelled. “Would you come here a moment?”
Clarisse popped her head out from around the corner. Lacy couldn’t believe her eyes. There was her sister, standing flesh and bone in front of her. Of course, Geo had told her to stay in her house and not go to the hospital or funeral, so she never quite had clarification that her sister had, in fact, died, but she had assumed that Geo had been protecting her, keeping her safe. Telling the truth, right?
The two sisters hugged as a few more people joined the group by the fire. Lacy lifted her head up long enough to realize they were sitting in the middle of what looked to be a hotel complex.
“We saved as many people as we could from the lies,” Dr. Chifa continued. “We had to build this away from the cities. The Wingers had taken over so much. Geo was just the head of your division. There were thousands like him all over the world, keeping the truth from coming out and keeping science from doing its job. You have no idea how many people they killed in the name of their conspiracies.
“Or how many people they brainwashed,” Reuben cut in.
“We were lucky to get this many people away,” Dr. Chifa looked sadly at the fire’s dancing flames.
“But you said you dad hadn’t taken the vaccine,” Lacy turned accusingly towards Tony, her brain slowly working through what felt like rusty gears as she tried desperately to keep up with the evolving situation.
“That was before I turned off the cameras in the complex,” Tony said. “I also acted surprised to see you. I wasn’t. Do you think I haven’t been trying to get you out of that cult? I couldn’t risk anyone figuring out what I was up to if they looked at the security cameras before the documents were made public. You had already attracted more people than you thought. I was just trying to get you out of there safely.”
Lacy glanced at Reuben who uncharacteristically looked up from his phone and gave her a charming half-smile.
“I can’t believe you stopped looking for me,” Clarisse said, hitting Lacy playfully on the arm. “You thought I died? I texted you telling you I wasn’t dead!”
“Geo told me that the TruthSetters had gotten your phone. Oh, I feel so stupid.”
The others chuckled around the fire, some nodded in agreement, the more sympathetic members just staring into space or on their phones. Soon 2022 became known as the year of truth, facts, and science. The vaccine worked, kept people healthy, as many of these things do, and Lacy slowly became unbrainwashed from the disempowered mob, headed by Geo, that had taken over her thoughts.