The NASA land rover trekked slowly across the Martian surface, leaving behind tracks in the red soil of the planet’s north pole. It came to a stop, extended its mechanical arm, and proceeded to dig a hole in the ground. Once it reached the layer of ice just inches below, it drilled into it, extracted a sample, and examined it under its onboard microscope. The probe had tirelessly executed this routine thousands of times in the past four months. Its mission: to find evidence of life.
Traveling at the speed of light, the images appeared on a scientist’s computer screen twenty minutes later. Soon, the room was filled to capacity. Everyone huddled around the monitor in excited chatter. What they saw was a fossilized unicellular organism, perfectly preserved in the ice. It didn’t look like much, really. Just a fuzzy round thing with some junk in it. But it was life nevertheless, the first alien life ever discovered by mankind. Little did they know it would also be their last.
Twenty-two minutes and an open bottle of champagne later, one of the scientists—the first to see the organism, in fact—turned to his nearest colleague, smiled widely, and said, “I have to eat you now.” The colleague looked at him strangely, thinking he had misheard him. But before he could ask him to repeat himself, the scientist gripped his head with both hands and bit off a chunk of his cheek. The room erupted in screams, but soon others were struck with the craving for human flesh as well. A few people nearest to the door managed to escape. The rest were either busy eating or being eaten.
This is how it began.
Elaine packed the kids’ lunches while they ate breakfast at the kitchen table.
“Eat, you baby,” said Megan.
Elaine looked up from the counter. Tyler, three years younger than his sister, was lazily swirling his spoon around in his half-eaten bowl of Cheerios. He was doing that a lot lately. Kids went through weird stages of appetite. Some days they would eat anything, other days nothing. Megan had already finished her bowl and was now accosting her little brother. She was doing that a lot lately, too.
“Mom, he’s playing with his cereal again.”
“Tyler, eat your cereal before it gets soggy. Megan, mind your own business.”
Tyler half-heartedly scooped a spoonful of cereal into his mouth, and Megan crossed her arms and watched TV.
Elaine’s husband Brad came into the kitchen, wearing a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase.
Elaine handed him his lunch, leftover meatloaf from the night before. She gave him a peck on the lips and said, “Have a nice day at work.”
“Will do,” he said, and walked out the door leading to the garage.
Tyler still hadn’t finished his breakfast ten minutes later, but it was time to leave for school. She dropped them off at the elementary school, returned home, and started on her list of errands for the day. The Saturday after next, she was planning to throw a surprise birthday party for Tyler. She had booked a magician months in advance. One of the mothers at her church had recommended him. She looked up the names of Tyler’s friends in her address book and filled out the envelopes for the invitations. She mailed them off at the post office, picked up some groceries, and ate lunch while watching the news. There were rumors of an incident at NASA, possibly involving several deaths, but the details were unclear. Elaine didn’t give it much thought.
She vacuumed the house, did a load of laundry, and read a few chapters of her book before picking up the kids at school. By the time Brad arrived home, supper was ready—spaghetti and meatballs. Elaine listened to her husband chat about work and the kids about school. Tyler had made some new friends in kindergarten. He always got along with others and made friends easily, much like his father. Megan was another story. She chastised Tyler again for moving the noodles around on his plate, and the dialogue from this morning was repeated.
Elaine spent most of the evening helping Megan study her multiplication tables. Her grades in Math were suffering, and she needed to do especially well on her test tomorrow.
After putting the kids to bed, Elaine took a shower, slipped into her nightgown, and checked her email. Her friend Christie had forwarded a message to her. The subject line contained only a single word: “Look.” She opened it and found a picture of a cell that reminded her of the amoebas she studied under a microscope back in high school Biology. There was no message attached—just the image and the subject line that told her to look. How curious, she thought. As far as she knew, Christie wasn’t a science geek, and it was unlike her to forward cryptic emails like this. Elaine emailed her back: “What’s this?”
She slipped into bed beside Brad, who was watching the news. She opened her book and began reading where she had left off. She couldn’t feel it, but inside her brain, something dramatic was happening. The chemistry was changing. Connections were being broken, and new ones were being formed. The process was very delicate. All of the steps were in series, so that the host wouldn’t be affected until the very last switch had been flipped.
Brad nudged her and pointed at the TV screen. “Have you heard about this thing on the east coast? They think a bunch of wild animals escaped from a zoo or something. Entire families are being found dead with their intestines hanging out and shit.”
Elaine cringed. “I don’t want to hear about that.”
Brad smiled and turned off the TV. He leaned over and began kissing her neck. She knew what that meant and giggled. She pushed him away, climbed on top of him, and started kissing him aggressively on the lips. Meanwhile, the composition of her brain continued to rearrange itself like the pieces of a Rubik’s cube rapidly twisting and turning until finally all of the colors matched on each side. She lightly nibbled his ear, and Brad laughed with delight. But then she was nibbling a little too hard.
“Hey, ouch, hon—”
With two powerful jerks, Elaine tore the ear off Brad’s head. She chewed it for a bit and then spit it out with distaste. Too chewy. Too much cartilage. Not enough meat. She looked back down. Brad was staring up at her, screaming at the top of his lungs. She winced. The noise bothered her. She leaned down and tore his throat out with her teeth, and the screaming stopped. Hot blood gushed everywhere, soaking Brad’s shirt, soaking the bed sheets. Within seconds, the life had drained out of him. She slipped down his body and dug her teeth into his love handles, which were much more satisfying than the ear. Next, she ate the meat on his thighs, his calves, his buttocks. It took her about an hour to consume everything that was worth consuming. She wasn’t ravenous; she was calm, patient. She took one bite at a time. She chewed thoroughly before swallowing. She ate as if she were eating any other meal.
It is important to understand that Elaine was still mostly herself. If you asked nicely, she could still tell you her children’s names, their birthdays, their favorite foods. She could tell you how she met her husband, the song they danced to at their wedding. She could give you her special recipes for apple pie and oatmeal raisin cookies. All of that stuff was still there. All of her memories and abilities tucked away in the recesses of her mind. The only thing missing was her capacity to feel love and compassion. She was a human without the pesky nuisance of humanity. In its place was an insatiable craving for human flesh and the desire to spread her affliction to others.
In Sunday school, she had been taught that everyone had a soul, an indestructible consciousness existing separately from the physical body. It was this belief that allowed the possibility of an afterlife. Even after the body died and withered away, the soul would live on forever. As she bit into her husband’s liver, she thought, with a trace of humor, that she had just disproved this ridiculous theory. There was no soul. The mind and consciousness were just so many neurons and chemicals in the brain. You loved because the connections in your brain told you to love. You ate because the connections in your brain told you to eat. And if somehow those wires got crossed, then the connections in your brain told you to eat the ones you love.
After she finished feasting on her spouse, she went over to her computer and forwarded her friend’s email to everyone on her mailing list. The subject line remained the same: “Look.”
She stood up and caught herself in the full-length mirror next to the dresser. Her face and nightgown were covered with blood. Her belly was distended. She had eaten the equivalent of six meals in one sitting, and yet somehow she still felt hungry. She opened her bedroom door and stuck her head out into the hallway. She could hear her children snoring softly in their rooms. Luckily, Brad’s short scream hadn’t disturbed them. For a brief moment, she thought about Tyler’s birthday party and Megan’s Math test and decided she didn’t care. She didn’t care one goddamn iota.
She walked down the hall to eat them, too.
Eric had been waiting in line for over three hours. Now there were only two people left ahead of him—an older man nervously shifting from foot to foot and a woman nervously wringing her hands. Eric himself was nervously fiddling with the clasp on his watch. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the line stretch down the hall and disappear around the corner. There had been much lively conversation at the beginning of the line, but it had gotten noticeably quieter toward the end.
They called it the Sacrifice Project. Every biologist and chemist in the country was invited. A week ago, the idea of a government-implemented mass suicide would have been unfathomable, but desperate times called for desperate measures. Humanity was down six points, had only ten seconds left on the clock, and this was its final Hail Mary pass.
People discovered early on that the disease spread, not only through physical contact, but through visual contact as well. Anybody who saw the organism or a picture of it was immediately infected. It was as if the very sight of it downloaded its biological blueprints into your brain, and then your body automatically reconstructed it using its own resources. When you got down to it, everything was made of the same building blocks—protons, neutrons, electrons. This organism, whatever it was, reproduced itself by rearranging those blocks as simply as one rearranges the letters in a game of Scrabble to form meaningful words.
The image that carried the organism’s information didn’t even have to be an actual photograph. Even a crudely drawn circle could cause infection. In a world where technology permitted the instantaneous transfer of ideas, the disease had spread rapidly. Within twenty-four hours of the initial outbreak, the government had shut down all forms of visual communication—television, newspapers, the Internet. Paper and pen factories were demolished.
But for many, it was already too late. An infected email had reached an employee in the newsroom of a local TV station. He printed the picture out and, during a live broadcast, flashed it in front of the camera, instantly infecting millions. Entire states across the country were wiped out in this way. The military did their best to quarantine the infected areas. The few uninfected were quickly ushered onto buses and taken to safe zones.
Eric had been in his dormitory when it happened. Without warning, his Internet connection was disabled, his cell phone lost its signal, every station of his TV showed static. Minutes later, Greyhound buses with the passenger windows painted black pulled up to his building. The campus emergency notification system clicked on, and a woman’s voice echoed along streets and sidewalks, in dormitories and lecture halls: “Attention all students and faculty. There has been an outbreak of unknown origin. A citywide evacuation is now in effect. Please board the nearest bus in an orderly fashion. Do not use your own transportation. Take nothing with you. This is not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill.”
Long, chaotic lines formed at each bus. Despite the instruction to take nothing, the majority of people didn’t realize the voice really meant nothing. No backpacks or purses, no cell phones or laptops, no pencils or pens. Just the clothes on your back. Army men with rifles stood at the door of each bus and patted down every person before boarding. They tossed any item they found, no matter how expensive or insignificant, into plastic garbage bins. Some protested, but most were too scared and confused to put up a fight. At this point, nobody knew what was going on. There had been stories of strange murders occurring simultaneously around the country, but the details were sketchy. People in areas where the epidemic had spread were either hiding, infected, or dead. Any information that leaked out was sparse, distorted, and—if in the form of a message entitled “Look”—dangerous.
With the passenger windows painted black, the only illumination inside the buses came from the interior lights. A curtain had been drawn behind the driver’s section, so people couldn’t even see out the front windows. At the time, they thought that these measures were designed to keep them from knowing where they were going, but later they realized it was for their own protection. What might have seemed like harmless graffiti painted on a billboard or stop sign could have been their end.
The buses took them to warehouses, hangars, football stadiums, and other wide-open places that had been cleared out and lined with hundreds of beds—designated safe zones where no visual communication could get in or out. Over the next few days, information gradually trickled down from the highest levels of government to the soldiers on the ground to the civilians they were protecting: The source of the outbreak was a NASA facility. The disease spread through physical and visual contact. The infected were cannibalistic. The extent to which the infection had spread around the world was unknown.
There were four types of survivors: the hysterical, who screamed and wailed until forced to take a sedative; the spiritual, who quoted Bible passages, held hands, and prayed; the optimistic, who pretended that everything would be alright in the end; and the silent. Eric was of the last type. He barely talked to anyone—not even to his roommates or the other students that had come on the bus with him.
He spent all day lying in bed, wondering about his family—his mother, his father, his six-year-old sister Sasha. They lived two states away, and he had no idea if they were alive or dead. Had they been taken to a safe zone? Had they been as lucky as he? He thought about his mom’s famous chili, the one that had won first place five years in a row at the county fair. He thought about the cross-country motorcycle trip his father had promised upon graduation. He thought about his sister’s favorite pink dress, the one that made her shine like a beacon in any crowd. He thought about how he would never taste or experience or see any of those things ever again. And he wondered what was worse—that his loved ones had all turned into cannibals, or that they had all been eaten by cannibals?
One day, the Army asked for volunteers with backgrounds in biology and chemistry to participate in the Sacrifice Project. You would be taken to one of many laboratories where the organism had been isolated. Since the infection took about thirty-three minutes to finish scrambling your brain, you would be injected with a serum that would kill you in twenty-five. You would be locked in a room, and in those twenty-five minutes, you would study the organism and note any findings in an audio recorder. That recording would be transmitted to another laboratory, where an elite group of scientists would be developing a cure.
“Any takers?” the soldier asked.
Eric sat up in his cot and raised his hand.
Many people, especially the religious folks, called the phenomenon magic or sorcery. But Eric knew better. He was a Biology major. A man of science. To him, magic was just a label the unimaginative placed on things they did not understand. At one time or another, every process in nature was thought to be magic until somebody discovered the logical reasoning behind it. Eventually, people realized that Zeus wasn’t the one throwing lightning bolts. Apollo wasn’t the one dragging the sun across the sky. The seasons didn’t change because Persephone had returned to the underworld. Magic was arbitrary; it said that certain things happened just because. But science revealed that nature followed rules, even if those rules weren’t as fanciful as a chariot in the sky.
This alien disease was no different. Any image that represented it was just that—an image. Nothing but pixels on a screen, ink on a piece of paper, spray paint on a wall. The image itself didn’t spread the disease; it was the meaning behind the image, the lines of code behind the program of reality, the writing embedded in the very fabric of space-time. A circle was just a circle until you intended it to be a biological weapon, and that intention is what gave the circle its power. Eric understood that reality as he knew it was only the tip of the iceberg. It was a fossil buried under a thick layer of ignorance, and science was the delicate brush gradually excavating it. What they were dealing with was far beneath their brush, far beyond their five senses of human perception. It might be centuries or even millennia before they could begin to understand it, if they could understand at all. They might be able to represent it with a variable in an equation or describe it with three-dimensional analogies, but perhaps only a four- or six- or eleven-dimensional creature could truly comprehend it. Humans could see the effects, but they would probably never be able to see the cause, let alone stop it.
Eric had no doubt that this project would be a failure. The government was trying to build a sand castle one grain at a time in the middle of a hurricane. It would have been impossible for an Earth-based disease, let alone one from another dimension. So why was he here? Why was he willing to sacrifice himself for such an obviously futile endeavor?
Because he was angry. He thought about all those nights he had spent finishing papers and studying for exams. He thought about all those report cards with A’s running down the side. He thought about the pile of graduate school applications still sitting on the corner of his desk. And now…now he would never graduate. He would never do anything amazing in his life. He would never get married and have kids. He would never give his son his first microscope or chemistry set. And all because this tiny, minuscule piece of shit flashed on somebody’s computer screen. Just like that, everything he had ever learned about working hard and reaching for your dreams was flushed down the drain.
And Sasha—cute, innocent little Sasha twirling in her pink dress—her life had barely begun.
That’s why he was here. He wasn’t going to sit in a warehouse, waiting to be infected or eaten. Nor was he going to waste the last twenty-five minutes of his life pretending he had a chance against something that was rooted in a plane of existence much higher than his own. Instead, he was going to walk into that room, deliver a farewell message to his family into the audio recorder, and then peer into the microscope. He wanted to look into the eye of the thing that was stomping on his dreams, murdering his family, annihilating his race—and then he was going to tell it to look at him. He wanted whatever grotesque monster that was connected to the other end of this furry little ball to look inside him and see the burning hatred he felt for it. He didn’t expect it to care. He just wanted it to know.
Look inside me. Look at my utter contempt for you. Look, you son of a bitch. Look.
It was just before dawn. Daniel stood on the roof of the electronics store. The “Going Out of Business” banner hung across the front by two chains. He pulled up one of them and flipped the banner up and over so that it was now lying face down on the roof. Gripping a flashlight in one hand and a can of spray paint in the other, he carefully formed a series of big black letters on the blank side of the banner. Satisfied with his work, he unhooked the two chains, flipped the banner over, re-hooked the chains, and pushed it over the side again.
He dusted off his hands and looked out over the parking lot. The sky was beginning to lighten. He could start to make out the graffiti that had been drawn on nearly every building and street sign the eye could see: a fuzzy circle with the tagline “Look,” like some bizarre political slogan. The images had no effect on him. His brain chemistry remained the same. The electrical pathways in his head stayed exactly where they were. For some reason, he was special.
Daniel was a survivor. Had been his whole life. When he was five, he had wandered off into the woods during a family camping trip. The search party found him four days later, alive and well, having sustained himself on bugs and berries. Since then, he had climbed Mount Everest a total of three times and often lived alone in the wilderness for months at a stretch. He thrived on danger, on pushing himself to the limit. He guessed that this innate survivalist mentality was at least partly responsible for his immunity to the disease. His position in the fabric of space-time was a place the infection couldn’t reach.
The organism was a survivor, too. Despite its intent to wipe out his entire race, he came to admire its great efficiency. Every infected person and animal had only two desires: eat or infect the uninfected. Any other activity, such as driving or sleeping, was only necessary to further these two causes. Often he wondered how the organism had come into being. Had it been engineered by another race as a weapon? Or had it developed naturally? Perhaps he couldn’t think of this as the destruction or replacement of his race, but rather the next step in its evolution. Modern man didn’t murder the ape-men of the past; the ape-men became modern man. Homo erectus, Homo sapien, and now Homo cannibalis.
When the outbreak happened, Daniel had packed a knapsack with food and supplies and hid underground in the city’s sewer system. From here, he peeked through gutters and sewer covers, closely studying the infected as a zoologist might study a herd of gazelles. Many people called them zombies, but this was a misnomer. They weren’t dead, for one thing, and they didn’t act like traditional movie zombies either. They just seemed like depressed cannibals. The way they spoke and walked, the way their eyes moved—it was all unmistakably human but, at the same time, very drab and monotonous. Once he mastered the infected’s mannerisms and personality, he was able to return to the surface whenever he needed to restock his supplies. He talked as they talked. He moved as they moved. Now, the thrill didn’t come from the possibility of a bear eating you while you were fishing in the river, but rather your mailman eating you while you were sneaking Cocoa Puffs out of the supermarket.
On one of these trips to the surface, he had walked by an alleyway where three of the infected were feasting on a fresh female corpse. One of them spotted him and held up a hunk of bloody intestine, as if to say, “Come, join us.” And automatically, Daniel stepped forward. He knelt down. He took the string of intestine. He put in his mouth. He chewed. He swallowed. His survival extinct had taken over. Any hesitation, any split-second indication that eating a human being wasn’t on his to-do list, and they would have known that he wasn’t one of them. And so he ate. He turned off the mechanism in his brain that told him to stop and vomit, just as he’d turned it off hundreds of times before when forced to devour whatever disgusting thing nature had in store. A nagging voice told him that this was wrong, that this was a personhe was eating, not a centipede or a porcupine or a snake. This was a person with a family and a job and a favorite book. He told that voice to shut up, and it did.
And he could have lived with it. He really could have. He could have convinced himself that he had no other choice, that it had been necessary to survive. He could have gone on living all alone in the sewer for the rest of his life, guilt-free. But then something happened. This woman he thought was dead, she regained consciousness for no more than five seconds. Her eyes fluttered open, met his, and widened in shock and horror. She knew. Despite his Oscar-winning performance as a hungry, depressed cannibal, she knew. She was being eaten alive, and the thing that frightened her the most, the thing that revolted her more than anything in the last few moments of her life, was that he—with his brain chemistry unaltered, his neurological pathways unbroken—was basically consuming her of his own freewill. He wasn’t one of the infected. He was something worse.
The shame of what he was doing flooded his mind and body like an avalanche. The internal mechanisms he had shut off suddenly powered back on, and he vomited the half-digested intestine and liver back into the woman’s body cavity. He jumped to his feet and sprinted away. He could hear the infected chasing after him, but he didn’t dare look back. He ran and ran until the shouts and footsteps behind him faded away, and then he slipped into the nearest sewer hole.
Since then, he hadn’t been able to hold anything solid down. Everything tasted like human flesh. Everything made him think of that woman and the look of revulsion in her eyes. In his previous life, he had eaten everything from spiders to skunks to stay alive, and now he couldn’t even swallow a cracker.
He climbed down the ladder and crept back into the darkness of the electronics store. He went to the speaker section and took down every single one. He lined them up along the entire front wall of the store and rigged them all to a stereo. Then he went to the music section, searched the racks with his flashlight, and grabbed a copy of The Best of Bach. There were two types of people who listened to classical music: those who truly understood and appreciated it, and the simple folk who couldn’t tell Beethoven from Mozart, but thought it sounded pretty nevertheless. Daniel was admittedly of the second type.
He popped the CD into the stereo, turned the volume up as far as it would go, and pressed PLAY. Johannes Sebastian Bach blasted out of two dozen speakers. The ground trembled. Items tumbled off the shelves. It was so loud he could feel it vibrate in his bones. He lay down in the middle of the store, closed his eyes, and let the notes flow through him. In his mind, he pictured himself sitting in the front row of a concert hall. He could see the strings, the bass, the conductor elegantly sweeping the air with his baton. For the first time since the infection broke, he heard music.
Tears leaked out from beneath his eyelids and rolled down the sides of his head. He was perfectly aware that when the infected found him like this, they would know immediately that he wasn’t one of them. They would tear off his limbs one by one. They would dig their fingers into his torso and rip out his organs. But that was okay. There were some things that were more important than survival. Like beauty. Like music. Like Bach.
He would rather die as a human than live as a monster.
Elaine pulled up to the strip mall and parked her car. Her stomach growled for the thousandth time. She hadn’t eaten in five days. It seemed as if all of the uninfected were gone. She drove from house to house, building to building, looking for anybody that might be left.
She got out of her car, and that’s when she heard it. Music. Coming from one of the stores. There was a warm, alien sensation growing in the center of her brain. It wasn’t enough to reverse her condition, but it was enough to make her tingle. She walked toward the source. The bloody nightgown she was still wearing fluttered in the breeze.
She came up on the electronics store from the side. When she turned the corner, she found a group of her people gathered out in front. They all stood still, confused, disturbed, entranced by the music.
“What’s going on?” she asked a little girl in a pink, blood-stained dress.
The girl pointed. Elaine turned. On a banner, scrawled in big, black, messy letters, was a single word: