Science Fiction & Fantasy

IntheNightWood-Banner_Final_Lightspeed Oct 2018

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Fiction

Men of Unborrowed Vision

We are not terrorists. We have not done this because we wish to terrify or instill fear. We do what we have done in order to bring the truth to everyone, a truth that burns away the lies and leaves only itself.

We are no more terrorists than the invisible hand of the market is a terrorist.

• • • •

The drone cameras came online earlier than the controls — the two fish-eye camera lenses giving Mara 270 degrees of vision stitched together in one widescreen video feed. The sync icon turned from orange to green, and she pressed the right joystick on her scavenged Xbox controller to throttle up the props on the quadcopter.

Flying felt like waking up on a Saturday morning and realizing you had two whole days without work or school. This part always made her smile. It even felt real, although the drone she was flying was three hundred miles away in Kansas City.

The drone gently took to the air; Mara piloted it away from the parking garage where the Occupy Heartland street-level team had hidden the solar charging station and network relay unit. She’d flown this route over to the protest zone often enough this semester that she didn’t even have to refer to GPS anymore. She navigated out of the East Bottoms toward Main and the H&R Block building where the OHL protestors were scheduled to gather.

A knock sounded at her door. Mara jumped, and the quadcopter’s auto-stabilizers kicked in and prevented her from crashing it to the pavement.

“Hey, Mara.”

She could guess who it was without taking her eyes off the drone’s feeds. “Hi, Adam.”

“You had dinner yet? Some of us on the floor are headed down to the dining hall. I — we thought we’d check and see if you wanted to come with.”

She looked up for a moment — the drone’s software would keep it on track, and she was still a minute away from the protest site. Adam Roth stood on the threshold of her dorm room, looking too tall, too thin, too pale-skinned, and sporting a wisp of a beard — God, she couldn’t wait for Movember to be over.

What was it, the third time this week he’d asked her to socialize? And how many times had he offered to give her a ride to the local Walmart since the start of the year? He was pretty obviously into her, but she hadn’t decided how she felt about him just yet — anyway, she’d promised Dad she wouldn’t date anyone in her first semester, let alone spoiled, rich white boys from Chicago with guilt complexes about their money. Even if she hadn’t, she didn’t have time — between her volunteer work that had her remotely monitoring the Occupy protests for signs of law enforcement overreach and her eighteen-credit semester, she barely had time to sleep.

“Sorry, I grabbed something earlier. I’ve got this monitoring shift,” she said.

“Oh.” He didn’t do a very good job of hiding his disappointment. “Maybe tomorrow?”

“Sure, maybe?” she said, but she was already turning back to her computer. Eventually, he would get the hint and stop asking. She hoped so — or at least she thought she hoped so.

She frowned at the video feed. Ordinarily, her view would be of several thousand protestors waving signs and chanting slogans against the corporate kleptocracy; the march was scheduled to kick off any minute. Instead, she found a relatively empty street, just the usual foot and car traffic. Nothing like any of the dozens of protests she’d seen since joining the movement.

She put the drone in standby mode and logged into the message boards via anonymous proxy. Had they canceled things and she’d missed it while she was in bio class? No . . . but there had been a lot of activity on the forum.

Mara read the posts with mounting disbelief. Dozens of people saying the same things: “Not feeling well,” or “Coming down with a cold,” or “Can’t make it out tonight.” Youth4ClasslessSocieT even said, “I just ain’t feeling it, you guys. Sorry. Maybe next time.”

Youth4ClasslessSocieT was Carlton Winstead, Mara’s high school classmate, sort-of ex-boyfriend, and the entire reason she was involved with OHL. He was the most politically aware person she’d ever met. There was zero chance he wasn’t “feelin’ it.”

The hairs on Mara’s neck stood up, and she couldn’t shake the sensation that she was in some kind of bad dream. She wrote a post describing the view from her drone and attached some snapshots to drive her point home.

“Every single one of us decided not to come to the rally? WTF?” She periodically checked the drone’s feed as she typed, hoping she’d gotten the time wrong, anything.

What was that old joke — what if they held a revolution and nobody came? Maybe this was a reality TV stunt. Was the joke on her?

Mara watched the non-protest until the battery indicator on the drone required her to fly it back to the base station, which wrapped up her shift of documenting and reporting on any overly aggressive police action taken against the rally. She filed official reports with the usual humanitarian monitoring sites and then scrambled to study for tomorrow’s Calc II test before exhaustion overtook her.

• • • •

Mara consoled herself regarding her miserable performance on her test with a visit to the campus café for a mini-pizza and a chance to finally check the discussion boards for news. She scanned the tables for a place to sit and accidentally made eye contact with Adam.

He waved her over. She couldn’t pretend she hadn’t seen him. Mara sighed and walked to his table in the corner.

Adam was poking away at a latest-model tablet computer, something from one of the new Indian companies that were springing up thanks to the Parliament there passing new laws crushing their labor movement. Mara tried — but saw from his reaction — that she had failed to repress her scowl.

“Yeah,” Adam said, slipping it into his messenger bag. “I know. Gift from my parents. It’s like they want to embarrass me. How are you?”

She shrugged. “I bombed my calc test. Up too late last night.”

“I saw.” He flushed in a half-charming way. “I mean, I walked past your dorm on my way in from the library and saw your lights were on pretty late. Sorry about the test. Was it the monitoring?”

She shrugged again. Maybe she liked him more than she cared to admit, as tongue-tied as she was getting. “That, and I’m taking way too many classes.”

“I follow the whole Occupy Heartland thing. I really support what they’re trying to do, you know?” He glanced at his bag. “Not that I could tell that to my parents.”

“You mean your millionaire parents aren’t fans of a movement for economic equality?” she asked, feeling kind of terrible even as the words passed her lips.

He laughed. “Go figure, huh?”

“I haven’t had time to check in today. Has OHL said anything about the KC protest fizzling last night?”

Adam frowned. “I haven’t seen anything. What do you mean?”

“There was a protest last night, but nobody came. I seriously mean nobody.” She sat across from him and took a bite of her pizza to buy her some time. How much could she really tell a trust fund brat like Adam? Maybe she could trust him a little. He wasn’t a terrible person by nature, anyway. “Something weird’s going on.”

His eyes widened, and he leaned in, lowering his voice to a pitch that was kind of a turn-on. “I like weird.”

“Uh. Okay. So, people are acting strange in the movement. Talking like they’re not as interested as they used to be. People who would never burn out on it, ever,” she said. “I know that sounds weird, but . . .”

He nodded. “I trust you.”

“I don’t buy the flu season explanation. We’ve protested in flu season before and this has never happened. Something else’s going on.”

Adam sat back in his chair, exhaled slowly. “You mean, like a government conspiracy?”

“Or a corporate one.” She finished her pizza in the silence that followed. Adam stared into the middle distance, his upper lip twitching as he did some kind of calculation.

Mara’s phone blared with an unfamiliar ringtone. The caller ID read: “EMERGENCY ONLY DO NOT CALL.”

“Hello?”

“Mara? I . . . need help.”

“Carlton?” She had never heard him sound so panicked. When she spoke, he groaned like someone had punched him in the stomach.

“Can’t. Don’t talk, listen. Did something horrible. Don’t know what happened. Notes in my room — don’t let them cover it up. I —” Mara could only just make out muffled shouting in the background. “Police! Don’t move!”

The call disconnected.

Mara stared at her phone for a moment, then slipped it into her bag. It wasn’t easy with her hands shaking so badly. “How much of that did you hear?”

“Most of it. Sorry, he was shouting — ”

“That offer for a ride still stand? Look — I don’t like to ask, but I can’t afford a bus ticket right now.” Actually, she hated herself a little for taking advantage of him. She didn’t doubt that Adam would drive her anywhere on the continent if she asked. But whatever trouble Carlton had gotten himself, she had to try and help. “I need to go home.”

“Okay — when?”

“Like, now.”

• • • •

The world is broken. It has taken centuries of human incompetence to reach this place of horrific imbalance. A startling and brave act must be taken to restore balance and end this tyranny.

• • • •

They passed through Des Moines before Adam started in with questions. Mara knew she would owe him some explanation, but had been dreading it anyway.

“So, this Carlton? Is he, like, your boyfriend or something? I mean . . .”

“No.” She sighed. Might as well give him the whole story. “Well, not anymore. We dated for a while. But he decided that heterosexuality wasn’t his thing.”

Adam laughed, sounding kind of relieved. “That had to sting.”

“Not really. I was more into his politics than him anyway.” She paused. “Before I met him, it was like I was walking around half-asleep. I didn’t really care about anything. I wasn’t planning to go to college. If I thought about my future at all, I figured I would end up a janitor like my dad.”

“Your dad’s a janitor?”

“Yeah, some of the time. You got a problem with that?”

Adam didn’t take his eyes off the road, but he waved a hand in a mea culpa gesture. “No, sorry. It’s just that this is the most I’ve heard you talk about yourself all semester.”

“I’m too busy to socialize.” Mara looked out the window to the miles of empty cornfields that rolled and unspooled into the distance behind them. She hadn’t really believed that this was what Iowa looked like — she’d thought that it was a stereotype.

“Please, go on.” Adam said.

“Freshman year in high school, civics class with Mr. Frobisher. This weird-looking kid with rainbow dreads stands up and starts denouncing the class as a brainwashing exercise, saying that ‘civics’ and school in general is just a system to prepare us for factory jobs that don’t even exist anymore. And the whole time he’s going on — and I can’t believe the teacher just let him — he’s looking at me with this look like, ‘Come on. Wake up and see what’s happening around you.’”

“That’s cool. What did you do?”

“Guess I woke up. Nobody but my dad had ever paid that much attention to me before. Later, I asked him why he looked at me the whole time like that. I thought he wanted to get into my pants.”

“What’d he say?”

“Just that I looked like I had potential.”

“Look at you now — he was right.”

“I guess. Sometimes I worry that I’m not doing enough.”

Adam took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. It was something, Mara noticed, that he did before changing subjects.

“Did you find anything online about why he was arrested?”

Mara looked down at her forgotten phone and refreshed her browser. The Star had updated its crime blotter. She hoped she had it wrong, but the address matched Carlton’s building.

“Oh no . . .” Mara’s heart raced and she blinked back tears.

“What? What happened?”

“They’re . . . someone — someone murdered Carlton’s roommate, and they think it was him. But it can’t be! There’s no way! Carlton’s a pacifist. A Buddhist. He’s a vegetarian, for fuck’s sake!”

Adam said nothing, but the buzz of the engine pitched higher as the car accelerated.

• • • •

We call this startling act “The Mechanism.” Like the greatest machines, it will turn without care or concern. The Mechanism is neither good nor evil, but many will ascribe such to it.

The Mechanism is set in motion and it cannot be stopped.

• • • •

It took some asking around on the boards, but Mara finally spoke with Carlton’s lawyer from OHL, a younger woman out of Chicago named Susan Vega with a slight Hispanic accent.

“I only know a little more than you do,” Susan said. “The deal is, there’s not much I can do. Carlton confessed.”

“He what?”

“He’s not talking to the cops now, and he won’t agree to meet with me. Right after they arrested him, he signed a confession. Then he became violent again, according to my contact with the KCPD.”

Carlton, violent?

“Maybe someone drugged him?” she suggested.

“Hmm. Maybe. We’ve been dealing with some pretty underhanded tricks, but that would be a new low. Listen, Mara? I know you want to help, but you have to leave this to me.”

“But — ”

“If there’s anything you can do to help, I’ll ask. Once his OHL connection goes public, we’re going to have a mess on our hands. Do you understand?”

Mara blinked. “So that’s how it is?”

“I’m sure you’re a smart girl. You’re committed to the cause, right?”

Mara hung up and turned to Adam. “The Occupy people aren’t going be any help. How much farther to KC?”

“An hour, maybe.”

“I’m not sure what to do. We can’t get in to see him, and he’s acting weird. The lawyer doesn’t want me poking around.”

“Sounds like a good reason to poke, but I bet the police have cordoned off his apartment since it’s a crime scene.”

“If we try to go in through the door, sure. But maybe we can sneak in through a window.”

“What floor does he live on?”

Mara sighed. “The seventh. The fire escapes are garbage, too. I wouldn’t risk them.” She checked the message boards again. “Disarray” was the word that came to mind. She composed a message pleading for calm until they had all the facts. Several more people were claiming to have gotten the “shut-in” sickness that was going around. One of them was a username she could put a face to: Cyndy Loo, a fiery-haired homeless punk rock girl who attended nearly every protest. Her fire-truck hair made her easy to spot on the monitoring feeds, and she was more hardcore about the goals of the movement than Mara was.

More and more, Mara was convinced that someone had drugged them. But who, and how? Thinking about the drone feeds, however, gave her an idea.

“We don’t climb in through the window,” she said. “We fly in.”

“Oh-kaaaayy,” Adam said.

“The observation drone! Carlton smokes, and I know he never latches his window. I’ll fly the drone over to his window, use the drone to push it open, fly in, and look around. The window should be big enough.”

“Can’t we just hack into his computer or something?”

Mara laughed. “Not everyone in OHL is a master hacker. We’re not Anonymous. Anyway, Carlton keeps his computer unplugged in a makeshift Faraday cage when he isn’t using it.”

Adam glanced at her quickly, then back to the road. “You’re serious. That’s some major paranoia.”

“Paranoid? It’s pragmatic when the government admits to intercepting every cell phone and email. It’s either the drone or you distract the cops by doing something illegal while I sneak in,” she said.

He laughed and nodded. “Okay. Let’s call me getting arrested ‘plan B.’”

• • • •

There will be violence in the coming time of upheaval. Strife is inevitable, as the world is burdened with too many who would destroy the accomplishments of great men. Some will have no choice but to steal from others, as they always have. But the weak will fall, and the just will persevere.

• • • •

Adam parked outside a Starbucks. “Wake me up when it’s time to move,” he said.

Mara nodded.

He leaned his seat back and was asleep in moments. Mara tried to sleep, but her heart beat too fast to allow for sleep. She surfed the web aimlessly until Adam sighed and straightened up in his seat. The dashboard clock said an hour had passed.

“What do you want out of life, Adam? What gets you out of bed each morning?”

“I don’t know yet.” She glared at him until he added: “Look, just about anything I’ve ever wanted, my parents made happen for me. Half the time, it’s easier to let them decide what I want.”

“Maybe what you want is something you can’t easily have?”

“Maybe that’s why I want you,” Adam said. He didn’t even stammer or blush for once. Mara smiled.

“Not a good enough reason for me to date you,” she said. “But who knows; we might find one yet.”

A long moment of silence passed between them.

“Do you know what gets me moving each day?” Mara said. “Helping others. Sure, I believe in God, I guess, but I don’t do it so I can go to heaven. I want to help people because I think it’s the right thing to do. Because others helped me when I wasn’t in a good place. Someone made a difference for me, and I want to pay it back.”

“Like Carlton,” Adam said.

She nodded. “Regular people help each other. At least, we used to. Now . . .” She sighed. “I don’t know. Fuck, what do I know about anything? I’m nineteen. I’m like just self-aware enough to know that I don’t know anything.”

“Well, I think there are two kinds of people: those who are excited about the future, and those who are afraid of it. You sound like you’re excited,” Adam said.

She shook her head. “No, there’s more than that. That’s your background, see? Some don’t have the luxury of thinking ahead. For them, just getting through today is all they can do. Can you imagine living like that?”

He shifted in his seat as though the line of questioning made him uncomfortable. “I guess not.”

“Try,” she said. “If you work on that, maybe you and me, whatever this is, maybe we have a chance. Okay?”

He brightened, and Mara wondered if she had made a mistake just then, but she didn’t know how to take it back. Or if she wanted to.

“Yeah. Okay,” he said. “I’ll work on it.”

• • • •

Mara had barely dozed off when her phone’s alarm woke her. She balanced her laptop on her knees and signed into the Starbucks WiFi, then through a TOR proxy to anonymize her connections.

The drone was sluggish in the chill November air, but the engines warmed up after a minute. The biggest problem was the distance involved; even flying at top speed, she might only have a couple of minutes of battery life by the time she made it to Carlton’s apartment. Not a lot of time to look around.

Adam woke up again just as the drone approached its destination. “Save the world yet?” he mumbled.

“Not really.”

“I’m going to grab something to drink. Want anything?”

“Coffee. Black.”

“Right. Back in a second.”

She panned a camera over to the parking lot. A cop car was parked in a handicapped stall. Assholes. So typical. The car was empty, so the cops had to be standing guard in the hall outside the apartment. If she was lucky, they were out for coffee, but she’d have to make as little noise as she could, keep the drone moving slowly.

She circled the building once to make sure she had her orientation right. It’d been over a year since she’d been to Carlton’s place. It was the night he’d broken up with her. But it looked pretty much how she remembered it: a converted warehouse, upgraded in the aughts into nice condos that hadn’t been quite nice enough to balance against urban flight, sold, and resold again until it was finally turned into Section Eight housing.

Carlton had helped organize the building into a community, started a collectivized daycare and a building watch. Mara had always felt safe there, even if the neighborhood was rough.

The drone’s battery icon turned orange as Mara found Carlton’s window. She tried to swing the quadcopter in close enough to put one of its lander pads against the sliding window, but the proximity feature of the software went off and stabilized the drone away from the wall. She was forced to spend precious seconds going into the options and disabling that function.

Again, she navigated close; this time the blades brushed against the glass of the window. The view on her laptop spun, but thankfully, the auto-stabilization quickly righted the copter.

Adam climbed back inside the car and placed a steaming cup in the holder beside her leg. His fingers brushed against her hip, his touch warm even through the fabric of her slacks.

She gritted her teeth, said nothing, and tried to flip open Carlton’s window again, tilting the copter hard on its side for a moment . . . And it worked! The window was open.

No time for celebration. It took three approaches to get through the window without crashing. Once inside the room, Mara began recording. She panned the camera across the bulletin board covered in notes on his wall, the pads of paper on his disheveled bed; she was careful to move slowly enough to capture solid still images, but not slowly enough that she could actually read any of it right now.

The battery indicator turned red.

She lifted the drone back up to window level and started to turn it away. Then she saw it.

The dark brown stain on the gray carpet by the door.

She hadn’t known Carlton’s roommate well. He was an older boy, in his last year of community college. He wasn’t politically active. Mara couldn’t even remember his name, which pretty much meant she was a horrible person. Carlton always remembered everyone’s name.

“That flashing red light can’t be good,” Adam said. “We can’t let the cops find the drone in there.”

Mara snapped back to the moment, turned the drone away and out the window, just in time for the feed to go blank.

“Well, shit.” Mara let out a long sigh.

“What happened?”

“The drone has an ‘auto-land’ feature but I don’t know how well it will work next to a building. It’s either sitting safe on a fire escape or it crashed to the pavement six stories down and alerted the cops.”

They listened for sirens in the distance, but the city was only just waking up.

“It’s okay. Probably,” she said, and tried not to think about how expensive the drone would be for someone to replace.

“So did you get anything good?”

“I have no idea.” Mara rubbed her eyes. Restless as she had been all night in anticipation of this morning, she was now completely exhausted. “You know what? I want to sleep in a real bed. Let’s go to my dad’s place; he’s probably left for work already.”

“Sounds — ”

“You can sleep on the couch,” she added hastily.

• • • •

The Mechanism does no direct harm, so long as those it works upon live forever in a natural state, independent and truly free.

No — the coming deaths are on the shoulders of collectivism and the socialist machine that perverts and destroys our true selves in order to support the burden of the takers.

• • • •

When Mara woke from her nap, she found Adam sitting at her dad’s small kitchen table with her laptop. “I hope you don’t mind,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep, and I wanted to go through the footage.”

She did mind, but she was still too tired to get angry. “Okay,” she said, opening the fridge. Wasn’t much in it besides a wedge of cheese and some beer. Maybe Dad just hadn’t been shopping this week. Or maybe he’d been laid off again. But he would’ve told her about that, she hoped.

“Your friend really went down the rabbit hole on this one,” Adam said. “All kinds of bizarre conspiracy theories. You ever heard of chemtrails?”

“Not really. Like contrails that planes make?”

Adam grinned. “Exactly. Some people see contrails, and they think that these aren’t just condensation. Like maybe the government is poisoning us or something.”

“Carlton thinks he was poisoned by the government?” Mara took a seat across from Adam. “That’s . . . hard to believe.”

“Well, look at this.” He pointed at the screen, and she walked around to get a better view. There was a still frame — obviously taken from a monitoring video — of one of the protests in downtown Kansas City. Carlton had circled an object in red.

“What is that?” she asked, squinting.

“It’s a reflection of the observation drone on the side of a building.”

The drone didn’t look right. It had extra equipment attached to the legs that Mara didn’t recognize, and there appeared to be some kind of haze coming off the bottom of the drone, below the cameras. “What’s that stuff coming out of it?”

“A very good question. It’s this printout that has me convinced. It’s from one of those confessional postcard sites.” Adam turned the laptop around. The screen displayed a still frame of a printout of a nondescript postcard that Carlton had heavily highlighted.

I’m a biochemist at a private research facility. For the past three years, I have been part of a team designing a nonlethal crowd control bioweapon. I studied T. Gondii because I wanted to help people, but now I think my work will be used to hurt them.

“What the hell is T. gondii?” she said.

“I googled that. It’s Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoa. Scientists like it because it’s one of the most well understood bugs that alters behavior in mammals. It infects mice and makes them want to be around cats, who kill them and eat them. I guess if you wanted to, say, modify human behavior to make them more docile, it might be a good place to start. A third of the population is already infected with it anyway. There’s some speculation that it’s linked to paranoid schizophrenia.”

“Someone set up our own observation drones to infect the protestors with a microscopic bug that causes schizophrenia?”

Adam winced. “When you phrase it that way, it sounds even crazier.”

“Because it is crazy,” Mara said. “Tear gas, which is banned by the fucking Geneva Conventions, sonic crowd control that makes us vomit, or maybe even non-lethal poison, sure, but nobody would dose protestors with bioweapons, would they?”

“I don’t know. I think it’s what Carlton believed.”

The front door slammed. Mara heard her father call out: “Hello? Who’s there? You best get your ass out of my house if you know what’s good for ya!”

“Dad!” She ran from the kitchen to the living room and wrapped her towering father’s waist in a huge hug. Mara silently thanked God he was wearing his janitor’s uniform and wasn’t carrying a case of beer.

“I shoulda known,” he said softly. “Saw that boyfriend of yours on the news this morning. Did he do it?”

“I don’t know, Dad. I’m trying to figure that out.”

“Hello, sir,” Adam said, joining them in the cramped living room. “I’m Adam — Mara’s friend from school.”

Mara let Dad go so he could shake hands with Adam. “Nice to meet you,” he said. He glanced at Mara out of the corner of his eye. With just that tiny little expression, she could feel his disapproval.

“I should have called,” Mara said sheepishly.

“I suppose,” her dad said with a smile. “I forgive ya anyway. Want some dinner?”

Mara shrugged. “I’ve seen the fridge.”

“Oh, damn. I forgot to go shopping. I’ll get on over to the corner store and fix you up a pot of chili for supper. How’s that sound, Adam?”

“That sounds amazing, sir.”

Looking as bone weary as ever, he departed before Mara could muster a complaint.

Mara went back through the notes Adam had compiled, just to be sure there wasn’t a more plausible explanation. She read up on Toxoplasma.

“This is crazy, isn’t it?” she said aloud. “I mean, if Carlton is nuts, then if we’re relying on his notes, we’re batshit, too, right?”

“We should go pay a visit to someone else who might be infected, see if they’re showing any violent symptoms like Carlton,” Adam suggested. “But maybe pick up some biohazard suits first.”

• • • •

Those who are self-sufficient will survive — they who live in the purity of truth, to the fullest of their potential.

To those who are not, you will be a danger to yourself and others.

This is the only warning you will receive. If you ignore us, then the blood of your victims is on your hands. Not ours.

For some, it is already too late.

• • • •

Mara left a hasty, apologetic note to her dad, and they walked from the apartment complex down a couple of side streets, cut across half-abandoned athletic fields, then onto east St. John Avenue.

“Where are we headed?”

“A campsite for the homeless where Cyndy lives sometimes. The police and city public works shut it down every couple of years, but then a few weeks later, people move back in. Looks great on the media, makes for some headlines, but doesn’t really change anything. It gets really cold here in the winter, so some people started digging holes to shelter in, and those holes turned into a bunch of tunnels. Folks add to them and rebuild them after the city bulldozes them.”

“Wow,” Adam said. “Points for ingenuity.”

The camp, at least on the surface, was a few tarps tied between sickly trees and some campfires just out of sight of the road. It looked cold and miserable, but more inviting than the cold concrete of downtown streets.

Mara asked a couple of young men standing next to one of the fires for directions. She’d seen one of them at protests in the past. He pointed them to a solitary tunnel at the fringes of the camp.

“I wouldn’t go in there if I were you,” he warned. “That girl be crazy.”

“Crazy how?” Adam asked.

“Keeps screamin’ at people,” said the other. “Can I have five dollars?”

Mara gave him the change in her pockets. “If you see anyone else acting like Cyndy, tell the police. They might be dangerous.”

“Shit, girl. Everbody out here dangerous.” But he nodded and pocketed her money.

At the mouth of the tunnel — which wasn’t really much more than a four-foot-wide dirt hole in the side of a hill — Mara called Cyndy’s name, then listened. Someone inside answered with a whimper.

“What was Cyndy like before all this?” Adam whispered.

“Friendly. Personable, I guess. But . . . you know, troubled. Had things been different, she would probably be in college kicking our GPAs’ asses.” She turned to the tunnel and cupped her mouth with both hands. “Cyndy! It’s Mara. We want to help!”

“Go away!” a young woman’s voice inside said. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Cyndy, please, we think we might know what’s going on — ”

“Shut up!” Cyndy screamed. “Stop TALKING!”

Mara looked to Adam. “Any ideas?”

“We could drag her to the nearest hospital?” Mara pointed over his shoulder, and he turned to see the small crowd of homeless people gathering to watch. “Or we could absolutely not do that. That might be the better idea.”

Mara rubbed her eyes. “Seems like she can’t stand the sound of people talking to her. Could that be the Toxoplasma? What do we do?”

“Do you think Cyndy has a cellphone?” Adam asked.

“No, a lot of OHL people don’t carry them because they think they’ll be tracked. But how would that help?”

“I bet she can still read and write text.”

Mara’s eyes widened. She took out her phone, pulled up Adam’s contact, and sent him a “test” text message, then threw her phone inside the hole and waited. After a moment, she heard someone shifting around inside the dark. “You are a genius, Adam.”

Adam’s phone buzzed. Mara snatched it from his hands before he could do anything.

Cyndy: who is this

Mara: Mara from Occupy Heartland how do you feel?

Cyndy: afraid of people they get 2 close I try to hurt them. I’m crazy

Mara: no, u are not crazy. Do u think u could go to hospital?

Cyndy: no no no no don’t try 2 come in I have a knif

Mara: okay, hang tight we will try 2 figure it out. Keep phone.

Mara turned to the crowd. “Cyndy is sick, and she can’t control herself. You need to stay away from her for now. She won’t hurt you if you don’t try to get too close. Okay?”

The crowd murmured in agreement. It would have to do. Mara started walking.

“Now what?” Adam asked.

“I don’t have a fucking clue.”

“We can call the media. Tell them what we figured out.”

“I can picture the headlines: ‘OHL claim corporations infecting protestors with anti-socialness.’ They already think we’re a joke.”

“Tell the OHL lawyer then!”

Mara forced a laugh. She walked faster, not sure why she was in a hurry. She was out of ideas. “Anything that makes the movement look bad will just get ‘lost.’ Like Carlton.”

• • • •

Ayn Rand once spoke of “men of unborrowed vision.” We have worked to be those men. Our actions will stop the cancer of socialism and collectivism that is eroding the human spirit. We will save the human race by making the moralistic barriers against social reliance concrete and physical ones.

God demanded that we become the correction to the natural way of existence.

He also demanded sacrifice.

• • • •

Dinner with Dad was quiet, thanks to Mara’s pointed stares any time her father looked like he was about to ask a question. To his credit, he could read her signals and knew well enough to wait until Adam excused himself to the restroom.

“Are you dating this Adam boy?” Dad whispered. In his two-bedroom apartment, no room was very far from another, but the bathroom was just off the hall to the kitchen.

“He’s just a friend, Dad.”

Her father smiled. “Too bad. I like him.”

“You made me promise not to see anyone!”

He laughed. “I didn’t think you would actually keep that promise. I just want you to keep your priorities. Elisabeth and I didn’t do a good job of that, but you can do better at balancing your life.” He always called her mother Elisabeth, and not “your mother.” She thought the word stung him sometimes.

“I’m not sure I can,” Mara said. “I dropped everything for Carlton. Who knows what this is going to do to my grades.”

“This is how I know you’re a good person,” he said. “School is important, of course, but friends and family come first. That’s how it should be.”

“Uh . . . okay, Dad.” She stood and kissed him on the forehead. “Thanks.”

“Things going to work out okay for Carlton?” Dad asked.

Mara bit her lip to keep from crying. She shook her head. “I . . . don’t think so. I think he did it. But he didn’t mean to, Dad. He’s sick.”

Her father said nothing; he simply wrapped her in his arms and hugged her again.

“Mara!” Adam called out. “You’d better come in here.”

Mara rushed to find Adam standing in front of the television. A familiar man was talking on the news channel. He had a beard, and the lighting was dim. He stood in front of a cinderblock wall, and he was making emphatic gestures with his hands. The crawl underneath said:

HOMEGROWN TERROR PLOT REVEALED?

“Who is that?” Dad asked.

“John Bloch. He’s the one of the richest men in the country,” Adam said. “I thought he was dead. Nobody’s seen or heard from him since his wife and daughter died in a train derailment a couple years ago.”

Adam turned up the volume, and the three gathered close to listen.

• • • •

Some will call us hypocrites for working together with our singular vision to create the Mechanism. It is true. We are hypocrites. But the results will justify our means, and the Mechanism reworks us now, too. We and our families will suffer for our actions, as it should be.

This is not how we wished things would end. We had grander plans to save you, but even Lucifer was burned by the fire.

The Mechanism interacted with a flu strain to spread faster than we had anticipated. Our tests ran rampant. The project is in God’s hands now.

By the time you witness this, the Mechanism will be in place, and the Men of Unborrowed Vision will be dead. The teeth of tyrannical governments can gnaw on our wretched bones, but they too will fall, as will all artifice.

• • • •

The video finished airing and the news cut back to the baffled anchors discussing the strange recording that had been delivered to all the major media outlets. Adam’s phone played a snippet of some old rock song about teachers leaving kids alone. On the sixth repeat, he finally stopped staring at the TV and answered his phone. Mara thought he looked paler than usual. He pointed to the phone and mouthed the word: “Parents.”

“Hi, Dad.” A long pause while Adam’s father spoke. “Yes, I am. How do you even know where my car is?” Pause. “A tracker? It shouldn’t really surprise me that you would violate — ” Loud argumentative words, unintelligible whispered from the phone. Adam was red-faced now — Mara had never seen him so angry. “Yes. Okay. Fine. Email me the itinerary.” He hung up.

“Did I get you in trouble?” Mara asked.

He shook his head. “I’m always in trouble. I think my parents might know something about all of this, but they won’t say what. They want me to go get treatment at a clinic run by a friend of theirs.”

“Where?”

Adam checked his phone. “A place in Chicago. If you come with me, I’ll make sure they give you a shot, too.”

Mara shook her head. “And my father? What about him?”

“Don’t worry about me, honey. This all sounds like a bunch of nonsense.”

“Yes,” Adam said. “Him, too.”

“And Cyndy?”

“What?”

“What about everyone else in OHL who is infected?”

“I can’t . . .”

Mara took his hands in hers and looked him in the eyes. “That’s right. You can’t help everybody. It’s not your fight. Go and get your treatment. I have a feeling it’s worth fuck-all anyway. A man like Bloch only buys the best bioweapons when he wants to end the world. So use whatever advantages you can. And if your parents are part of this, tell them that I’m coming for them and everyone like them.” The last sentence became a snarl. She was done with calm now.

“I don’t know what to do.”

“Now you know what it’s like for the rest of us without the privilege of wealth and power,” Mara said softly.

Adam laughed. “Great.” He paused. “I’m just . . . fucking terrified. I don’t want to believe any of it, Mara.”

“Maybe it’s a hoax. But after what we’ve been through the past couple of days, I think it’s real. Shit, they’ve been trying to break us since before you or I were born. My whole life, they’ve been trying to break us. This is just a new club. And sure, they’ve got money and their designer fucking disease, but there’s one advantage we have over them; don’t you know what that is?”

“What?”

“Sheer fucking numbers. There will always be more of us than them.” She waited for him to say something.

Adam flushed and looked away. “I’ll come back,” he whispered. “I’ll bring help.”

“You don’t have to promise me anything,” Mara said. She let go of his hands. Adam stopped for a long moment, and Mara silently begged him not to say anything else. Not to ruin it with bullshit.

He left without another word, slamming the front door shut behind him. The sound shattered her composure and the silence in equal measure. It was several minutes before she pulled herself back together.

Maybe she could trust him. Maybe she couldn’t. After what they’d been through, she could understand his fear. But fear was a luxury, a rare commodity. Right now, she was flush with seething anger.

Fear was worthless. A paralyzer. Anger was something she could work with. Anger could be harnessed to productive ends.

She watched from the window as Adam drove away to his magic cure. As he passed from sight, she put any thoughts of him and whatever they had away. She sat at her dad’s tiny kitchen table, took out her laptop, and began to write. She addressed the chaos that was the OHL forums:

 

Fuck Bloch. He’s wrong about us and I’m going to prove it.

If we’re going to survive, we have to set aside fear and work together. What better way to spit in the face of a terrorist than to do exactly the opposite of what he wants?

We fight back. We organize house-to-house deliveries, we use the collective smarts of the Internet and we solve this. Together. That will really piss him off.

Now . . . who’s with me?

Jeremiah Tolbert

Jeremiah Tolbert has published fiction in Lightspeed, Fantasy Magazine, Interzone, Asimov’s, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Shimmer, as well as in the anthologies The Way of the Wizard, Seeds of Change, Federations, Polyphony 4, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. He’s also been featured several times on the Escape Pod and PodCastle podcasts, and his story “The West Topeka Triangle” was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award. In addition to being a writer, he is a web designer, photographer, and graphic artist. He lives in Kansas, with his wife and son.