Nobody noticed the first few.
They walked. One by one, in the beginning. Isolated instances. On every continent, mid-meal, mid-shower, mid-work, mid-fuck, right out the door of a pulled-up car in the middle of a freeway—ordinary people turned their backs on their ordinary lives and walked.
They walked, shedding their hair in clumps along the way, sloughing their skin in translucent sheets to reveal pale grey beneath.
On bleeding feet they walked down highways and lanes and trails, unerringly taking the path of least resistance to the nearest coast.
They crossed the sand. The sea cooled their aching calves. Still, they walked, until the waves broke over their smooth heads and pulled them under.
They didn’t drown.
The aircon barely cut the sweltering heat hammering the walls of the small lab where Dyl Gibson stood staring into space. He tapped absently on a holding cage. The juvenile chimp inside turned bright eyes his way. After all these years, there was still no better model for vaccine testing than a chimpanzee; genetically, they were practically human. The chimp hooted softly and tapped back, but Dyl’s attention was fixed on a Japanese innernet feed streaming into his retinal implant. He doubleblinked to max the image.
On a stainless steel table under the hard white LED lights of another laboratory, a naked man keened and thrashed against restraints. The usual swelling around the crotch had almost subsumed his genitals beneath smooth mounded flaps. A slight steel-haired Japanese technician, masked, gloved, and coated, pressed a hypodermic needle to the grey skin, and jerked back. She held the syringe up to camera. The needle had snapped clean off where it met the blue plastic hub.
That was a 12-gauge needle. Christ.
Dyl had been eight during the first year of COVID-19. Ten, during the much worse second wave. He’d survived the H37Rv pandemic, lived through the Silence, and sat safely in a full lockdown zone during the ebolavirus galveston outbreak that killed his tough-as-nails mother. That was the virus that had driven him headlong to med school, where he’d armoured himself in science and the high-pressure atmosphere within countless hazmat suits, battling the nu-viruses that proliferated in the steamy greenhouse of the forties and fifties.
He was a freelance bug-stomper. He’d seen everything there was to see, but he’d never seen anything like this.
We are the dam holding back the flood. He and his colleagues would fix this. They always had before. They just needed time.
Eyes unfocused, he tapped absently on the bars of the chimpanzee’s cage.
In the centre of the pine breakfast table between Dyl and his wife and daughter, the flickering hologrid rendered two masked Community Protection Officers standing in the middle of a Florida highway. They were trying fruitlessly to round up a group of eight half-naked walkers.
The shoal—as the innernet had dubbed them—weren’t mindless. They could think and even speak for a while after the change began. They just couldn’t see a reason not to walk into the ocean, and no amount of persuasion or force could keep them from that end. Like migrating birds, like addicts to the score, they were compelled.
One of the shoal sent the smaller CPO reeling. She pulled out her truncheon.
Sixteen-year-old Kai ran a shaking hand over her golden hair, which she’d shaved to stubble two days before. “Why don’t they just let them go?”
Cordelia pushed her granola away. “Please turn it off. I’m trying to eat.”
“No holos at the breakfast table, Kai,” Dyl said. “Not the news, at least.”
“Try this instead.” With a flick of her silver-ringed fingers, Kai cast her personal stream onto the grid, and the road dissolved into a sparkling bay that would have been called “tropical” back before the tropics overtook most of the world. Now the air shimmered with heat. The crumbling brick walls of a drowned tourist village jutted from the water like tombstones. Among the ruins, the shoal darted and splashed with dolphin grace. No clothes. No hair. Their grey skin shone in the steamy day. Their passingly human forms only threw the inhumanity of their features into sharper relief. Kai watched, her face alight with wonder.
Cordelia grimaced. “Poor creatures.”
“They’re sick,” said Dyl.
“They don’t look sick,” Kai murmured.
“It’s a mutation. An endogenous retrovirus. The chimps and I are working on it.”
“On the radio they said it came from China,” said Cordelia.
Dyl laughed humourlessly. “The Chinese think it came from us.”
“I think it’s a punishment,” Cordelia said darkly.
“Mom, you’ve gotta stop listening to that prehistoric radio crap.”
Cordelia ignored that. “It’s poetic, don’t you think? A reverse Noah’s Flood. Don’t bring the water to us; send us into the—”
With a soft ping, the holo gave way to the grinning mop of dreadlocks that was Kai’s boyfriend Pistol. Behind him, half-naked human bodies roiled to a loud doofshuffle beat. Behind them, the sea glimmered an invitation. He smirked into the lens he’d had implanted into his middle fingernail. “So are you coming, or nah?”
Kai hastily flicked her feed out of the grid and back into her head. She muttered, “I’ll call you back,” and tapped her temple to hang up.
Cordelia punctuated the brief silence that followed with a single arched eyebrow. “Absolutely not.”
“Mom! It’s just a party!”
“At a beach! In the middle of a plague! Are you all trying to catch it?”
Kai hesitated a moment too long.
It dawned on Dyl at last that his daughter’s freshly-shaved head might signify more than just her latest attempt to annoy her mother. “Kai, are you sick?”
“No! No.” She pursed her lips and tilted her head toward the renewed view of the holographic shoal frolicking in their flooded bay. “But I don’t think they are, either. People are saying maybe they’re just something new.”
“It’s an ancient RNA virus, honey. Nothing supernatural about it.”
“I didn’t say supernatural. Ten percent of the human body is made up of RNA. You taught me that, Dad. This is just . . . part of us.”
Dyl knew the sick were never to blame, but the evangelical shine in his daughter’s eyes stabbed ice through some instinctive part of him and he snapped, “They’re not human anymore!”
“And what do humans have to look forward to? Cooking to death in drowning world? Look at them.” Kai waved at the flickering hologram. “They look happy.”
“We don’t know what they feel. They don’t talk. They—”
But Kai was no longer listening. She’d turned inwards, and her expression twitched neural commands as she navigated the streams, watching people changing, changing.
• • • •
Within a week, she was gone. She left behind everything she owned, along with a dusting of short golden hairs on her pillow.
He couldn’t stand it. He took to driving the roads—highways, byways, dirt tracks—to the ocean, looking for Kai.
Cordelia took to locking herself in the bedroom all day, immobilised by grief. The tiny physical radio that had been her quaint lifelong hobby babbled softly on the bedside table.
After a while, the swarms of shoal on the roads made driving impossible. Dyl returned to the lab.
One by one, the feeds from the other labs went silent.
Dyl began testing his formulations on himself. The chimp watched him work. He smiled at her, and lightly tapped the bars to say hello.
He came home one night in the fall—a misnomer in recent years; the trees would remain lush well into November. When he stepped through the door, pulled down his mask, and inhaled the stale humid air, he knew instantly that something was wrong.
The bed he’d shared with Cordelia for seventeen years lay dishevelled. Empty. The radio on the bedside table whispered static like the hiss of sea on sand. A delicate tumbleweed of blond hair, caught by the breeze of his entry, danced in a circle and came to rest against his shoe.
Deep in the house, water flowed, a tap trickling into a tub. The bathroom door was locked. He called out. He hammered the wood with the heel of his hand.
Cordelia answered in a gurgling whisper: Don’t come in.
He broke down the door.
His Cordelia curled in on herself in the overflowing tub, naked, grey, her fingers threaded with clumps of moulted hair and skin. The smell of her filled the room, salty-sour, like seaweed drying in the sun. It was the smell of something rotten, a creature out of place, and as she sobbed and apologised—apologised!—he kissed her slick face and rocked her like a child. She begged him to lock the door and leave her to die human.
He sat with her through the warm night. Before dawn, she rose silently. Dyl followed. He guided her into the car and drove her to the ocean, and when she reached the sand at 9 a.m. on the 26th of October—the last date he ever bothered to count—her feet were whole and unbloodied.
Sleek heads broke the water. The shoal watched her come. Cordelia walked into the waves and didn’t look back.
• • • •
The next morning, Dyl returned to his lab for the last time, and propped the door open to the blazing day beyond. He found the chimpanzee asleep. He unlocked her cage, and tapped gently on the bars, as he had done so many times before.
She blinked at him. He took her almost-human hand and helped her down to the floor, to the open door, and wished her luck. He hoped she might find others out there. It would be a terrible thing to be the last.
At first he searched for other survivors on the innernet, but even the news feeds had gone stagnant. He found nothing but eerie preprogramed ads serving themselves into eternity.
After that, he got ideas about preserving what he could of human history, but paper libraries had long fallen out of fashion.
One by one, the automated feeds went dark as power stations failed and server farms shut down for the last time.
The change never came for Dyl. One of his formulations had worked.
Desolate, he went to the beach at last, to the place where he’d let Cordelia go a year and a half before. He stepped onto the sand human, whole and entire; entirely alone.
As though it was waiting for him; as though it had been built for him, in the middle of the sand stood a door. The door connected to a glass tunnel, and this sloped down the sand to sink beneath the waves. Frowning at it in puzzlement, Dyl only noticed the lone member of the shoal lounging in the warm shallows at the rocky end of the beach when it raised a webbed hand in greeting.
Bemused, he raised a hand back.
The shoal male turned to the ocean. At some silent signal, sleek heads broke the waves, and Dyl recognised two of them instantly; he had known them down to the shape of their bones, the angles of their jaws, the curve of their necks, and these things, at least, hadn’t changed. He wasn’t sure those firm lipless mouths could smile anymore, but his daughter’s eyes were kind as she motioned Dyl toward the door.
The tunnel took him down, down, beneath and beyond the breakwater. Here, where the glimmering surface still admitted green-tinged sunlight, the passage opened into a small glass room, comfortably furnished with a single bed, a desk, and a variety of books which were only slightly damp.
The shoal emerged through the gloom outside, moving with dolphin ease. Curious children crowded around the tank, pointing and pushing. Cordelia put a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. Kai reached out to him.
Dyl smiled at her, pressing his hand to the thick wall between them.
Gently, Kai tapped the glass.