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.
In an office across the world, in the back of a small building, huddled in the Barcelona cityscape, the moon hanging heavy outside the dingy windows, sat a woman anxiously reading through the information that had been provided to her. Her desks were littered with papers and records, documents from several governments, and a vast network of highlighters, pens, and paperclips. Months of research, and she could see all the connecting points, she was just missing the hard and fast, concrete proof. And she’d need it… if this was true… she’d need proof.
Her stomach unsettled with the remnants of her coffee she’d had some 17 hours earlier, fizzling away and leaving nothing in its wake, caused her to stand up and crack her neck and back. “…Lacy, where ARE you…” she muttered to herself, leaving her computer lit and her headset still on, she took a walk to her small kitchenette.
Pickles, cheese, olives, lettuce long since dull and soft, cold brew, some leftover rice and some OJ is all that met her when she opened the fridge. Leaning in to try and pick whatever she could potentially make of the Smorgasbord when a ping went off in her right ear.
“Daria, you there?”
“Lacy! Where’ve you been? You were supposed to check in nearly 40 minutes ago.” Daria replied, as she picked up the OJ bottle, and let the door to the fridge shut as she walked back over to her desks.
“I think I found it. But… I am being followed. I can’t go back to my place just yet.”
Daria took a breath and tapped into her GPS tracking system. “Ok, let me see.” she muttered as she typed in the tracking number of Lacy’s bluetooth pager. “I see you. You’re coming up on 4th and Independence…” she half said to herself, as she typed in a cross reference number of the security badge another operative had nicked earlier in the week from the FBI. “How many bodies?”
“I can see two, but they aren’t the standard fare.”
Daria could see as two red dots appeared, trailing Lacy’s pale blue dot by a quarter block. “What do you mean? Details.”
“Tall, suspiciously so. They are wearing sunglasses, but the sun is behind the buildings. They are walking oddly, their gait doesn’t make sense.”
“Alright, breathe.” Daria answered listening, and trying to figure out a route of escape. “I can see that Tony and Monique are both about 3 blocks from you. They are waiting for another operative to finish their piece. Let me reach out to them.”
“Alright, don…. don’t go anywhere…”
Daria could hear the barely controlled panic in the other woman’s deep voice. “I won’t… you can stay on the line while I reach out.”
A tense 13 seconds later, and a man’s dulcet tones answered “Tony.”
“Tony, it’s Daria. Lacy is being trailed. She’s on the line. About… two and a half blocks from you.”
“Roger that. Where do I need to go? We have about 19 minutes left here, I can pick her up and be back in time for transport.”
“Good. Lacy, in just a moment I am going to need you to run, fast. I need you to get to the Smithsonian AandS Museum, Jefferson side. Can you do that?”
The rumble of an engine started in the background as Lacy answered softly, “Yes. Just tell me when. They are staying the same distance back.”
“I can see that…” Daria replied, holding in that 8 more red dots had appeared behind the original two, and all of them were trailing her little blue dot. She quickly dialed her other contact in the area.
“Monique, it’s Daria… I need you to run interference, we have a trail happening.”
“Roger that, where? I have 24 minutes until transport here.”
“Good. I need you at Jefferson and 4th in 2 minutes.”
“I’ll have to speed.” Daria could hear the tiny thrill wrapping itself around Monique’s voice.
“Alright, Lacy. One… two… three… RUN!”
Daria watched the blue dot start to flicker and move faster, she could hear the engine gunning in her ear and Tony’s radio station playing smooth jazz. Her pulse picked up when she noticed the red dots moving in tandem… as fast as Lacy… but not catching up.
The yellow dot moved into place behind the Smithonian just as the blue dot took a left. Moniques green dot went flying onto the screen, “10 bodies. Just crossing Independence, they are moving to the Westbound side.” Daria said.
“Gottem…” Came the reply from Monique, as Lacy’s breathing continued and a squeal of tires interrupted the jazzy music for a moment. “Son of a BITCH!” Monique screamed before static and all sound was lost to Daria.
“MONIQUE! MONIQUE! LACY! TONY?” Daria yelled as she watched in horror. She’d lost audio but could see in pixel detail, like a horrific 80’s inspired game, as the green dot should’ve been a couple hundred feet away yet from the red dots. Suddenly, there were 20 red dots. Lacy’s blue dot disappeared into the yellow and they took off, but the red dots kept multiplying. Daria could feel the hairs on the back of her neck stand up on end.
Feverishly typing, she entered in her code to bypass the local precinct channels to get her police contact at the local PD. “Sheryl. We’ve got a CODE PIXIE A CODE PIXIE.”
“Daria?” came the beleaguered voice of a 60 year old woman.
“Sheryl, CODE PIXIE! INDEPENDENCE BETWEEN JEFFERSON AND 4TH! NOW! OPERATIVES DOWN!”
“SON OF A BITCH. ON IT.”
Sheryl disconnected, and left Daria in a state of intense panic and mild arrhythmia. Her attempts to contact any of her people in DC for an unending 4 minutes ending in naught.
She watched as 7 black dots careened on screen and into the miasma of red and green.
Her mouth dry as a bone, her eyes tearing up, her heart racing and her skin prickling with anticipation as the clock on her counter tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tocked…until…
“Dari….” static “Pix…” static “they’re everywh…” static “..’re right! It’s fuck…”static “liens!!!”
Static…. as Daria dropped the closed OJ bottle on the floor. She’d been right. She watched the green dot move off screen unsure if that meant Monique had made it safely. The black dots now in a jumble with the red. The yellow and blue dots drove back to Tony’s previous position just in time for a pink dot to get into the vehicle as they took off.
She took a breath and dared herself to feel some semblance of validation. Just a moment’s respite, to admit she’d been right.
* * *
He sat in the damp, dank tunnel underneath the building. He’d never been told directly, but knew this was a place of fun and joy many years ago. Now it was dark. So dark. Leaks dropped off the ceiling, but it remained a place of refuge.
So many years. So many years of foraging and escaping. Back to this dark, wet place.
Kyle put on the black hat. Something he’d cherish forever. He wore it, looking into the lamplight. Two, large ears adorned the top. His mother told him this was a hat for “Mickey Mouse,” whoever that was. But he felt at peace. She told him that the hat would protect him. He was so young when he lost her. He remembered the day of the forage. They’d come in a pack. She had been holding that pager, telling him little, but the look was clear. They were coming.
It had been 30 years and he could not forget her words: “I’ll always be here.”
Maybe she was.
He stared at the lamp as a moth to the flame. Hearing the drip-drip-drip-dropping of the water into the tunnel. It had one been a place where people traveled under a highway to get to what he had been told was “the most magical place on earth.”
It never felt magical.
He always knew her as mom or mommy. He knew, though, her name was Daria, and that she’d worked so hard to help humanity come back from the brink.
The vaccine had been a cure for a horrendous pandemic, but it had never been a cure for all of humanity. Friends and relatives had started experiencing other symptoms after the “cure.”
He’d heard the word “zombies” as a child, but nobody had ever confirmed that was what was occurring. He hadn’t even understood what “zombies” meant. He knew that his mother was a hero and had been working to subdue the vaccine epidemic. She told him some, but not all. Mom had taught him how to survive, even in the intense climate of California. He could shoot (unless the sound would bring those who had succumbed to the vaccine symptoms), or he could trap or use other techniques. He’d made a bow. Arrows were efficient. And quiet. He could use traps like nooses. He survived. For so long.
Kyle sat in the tunnel, the drip-drip-dropping above him and stared into the lamp light. Mickey Mouse ears still on his head as he stared, solemnly. Tears came – in a fashion. Mom had told him to never give up. To know that life goes on. But especially … survive.
He sat there eating a hare he’d snared earlier in the day. Drip-drip-drop. Drip-drip-drop. The sounds was solace. The sound was familiar. And then the crackle on his crank radio.
“This is Captain Adam Rickards. Seeking response from outposts*
Kyle flurried, jumping to his feet reacting to the sound.
The Mickey Mouse hat never left his head.
“Captain Adam Rickards, over. Seeking refugees. This is officially the United States Government. We have a cure. We’re here to help you come home.”
Kyle stared, eyes wide with his Mouse hat on at, the radio. He listened. He heard. And he heard the words: