Monday, 5 June, 2017 – Ann Arbor, Michigan
Cortez, upon reaching the new world, decided What the hell. I think I will walk to work today. Because, after all, just yesterday—Or was it the day before? The days have kind of blurred together recently.—the great explorer thought that she was dying of brain cancer. Even Cortez still has to get to work, of course, cancer or no cancer, but it’s still early. And even if this madness makes her late, so what? It’s better than going on eternity leave.
But now everything has changed. Kate takes a shot at feeling elated, but falls a little shy. Not having cancer is good, certainly. So what’s the problem? The problem is—why did she think she was sick in the first place? Kate knows she’s going to have to consider that problem soon, but she’s not looking forward to it.
At the corner of Main and Washington there are news kiosks: the kind where they have a big wrap-around display at the top showing several different CNN news shows simultaneously, and then lower down there are transparent plastic drawers with free floppies. As usual, someone has spray-painted the word LIES in black paint several times across the main screens and the drawers. As Kate walks past, she sees the big story: there has been a major earthquake—7.3—in Iceland, near a volcano called Katla. It’s the most powerful earthquake in Iceland in more than one hundred years. Researchers around the world are in agreement that the location of the earthquake is a great stroke of luck, since ‘Laki’ is the only Icelandic volcano name that non-Icelanders can pronounce. What if it had struck in the vicinity of Eyjafjallajokull? Even so, the earthquake has apparently been powerful enough to jumble all the letters in the names of nearby villages. One of them is apparently now called something like ‘Grafarkirkurkkukkjarrjjarrrr’!
Oh, those poor people!
Two blocks later, at Washington, there’s a bit of a commotion. A police squad car has its flashers going and its two policemen are lifting a beggar off the sidewalk. The man isn’t struggling but he also isn’t going meekly, yelling at the cops about how he was a bomb technician in the Gulf War. He’s wearing ancient olive drab fatigues with a threadbare American flag stitched onto the back. A bit of a crowd has gathered to jeer at the police. Kate waits for the light to change then crosses Washington, walking slowly.
No cancer is good, obviously, but the whole nonsense about brain cancer in the first place did not happen accidentally. It was induced.
Kate saw them briefly on the day three weeks ago that she first stepped outside of her body. In fact, those little creepy things inside her own mind were the reason she first stepped outside her body. And then she saw the glistening gray worm hanging out the back of her head, and promptly forgot about the other little creepy crawlies. But of course, the creepy crawlies wanted her to forget about them, didn’t they? And so she did. They got her to focus on the worm coming out the back of her head, probably because that was the least important thing. And of course she felt better when she got rid of it.
No. They made her feel better when she got rid of it.
It isn’t easy to get used to the idea of things that live inside you but are not actually physical. What the hell does that even mean? How can something be alive but not physical? The idea is idiotic. No serious person would think this way. Kate feels a wave of shame for even allowing herself to waste time on such an idea and—
“Fuck. Right. Off.” Kate says it aloud, gritting her teeth. Two women coming from the other direction look at her in alarm, but she is speaking to the slime-being that just now tampered with her mind. That is exactly how they work! As creatures of the realm of the mind, they get into your thoughts. They impersonate your thoughts so you believe it’s you yourself doing the thinking. But they can’t reason with you, because what they want is not reasonable. They want to steal your life, the force of your thoughts. The stuff that the Matrix idiotically referred to as ‘electricity’ like you would get out of a battery. Oh, but this kind of power is much, much more precious than coppertops. The energy that they are in there stealing is more vital than blood, more precious than internal organs. It is life itself. It is life and light, it’s love in the springtime and joy and dancing and boyfriends and chocolate cake. These fuckers are taking the distilled essence of all that, and the sparkling sap that makes all that possible. They’re taking everything.
Kate is scowling so hard that a man crossing the intersection with Packard in the other direction does a double take and swerves to avoid her. Yeah, swerve all you want, buddy. But you can’t swerve to avoid something that’s inside you. Swerve to avoid possible unpleasantness while, inside you, scuttling nightmares are eating your fucking soul.
The thing that actually makes Kate most angry is just the wrongness of it. Nobody should take what isn’t theirs. You have no right to take what isn’t yours, even if the church tells you it’s OK, even if the state tells you it’s OK, even if you all got together and voted till you were blue in the fucking face. If it’s not fucking yours, you can’t just fucking take it. Kate has lived all her life in a world where people think it’s perfectly OK to just take what they want if they, you know, need it. That is the morality of parasites. And now she has the very essence of that morality crawling around inside her fucking mind. And if you don’t think that an immaterial can do any real damage? Let some nice software viruses into your computer and let me know how that goes. These things are real, they have been there all her life, and now—Kate can’t quite tell what they are doing in there, but she can tell that the little fuckers are not happy to be noticed and to be unable this time to divert her attention, oh no, not happy at all.
Oh and, by the way, now that they know you’re onto them, would you like to bet that they can’t give you actual cancer if they want to? Would you like to bet your life?
But what can she do? Use harsh language? These are mind parasites, like in the Colin Wilson novels that she read long ago. They aren’t physical cockroaches that she can scare away by walking into the kitchen and turning on the light. She can’t—
Ah. Kate grins.
But they are creatures of the mind. And Kate knows how to become one of those too, doesn’t she? Isn’t that exactly what an Astral Girl is? And did she not, in the astral state, grasp the parasites’ little worm-thing and pull it out of her head and kill it? Why yes, as a matter of fact she fucking did!
Her pace already slowing, Kate feels herself already slipping into that state almost before she wants to. The urgency she feels about getting these creatures out of her knows no bounds.
Up ahead is the place where the railroad crosses Main Street at a steep angle. As she approaches the tracks, Kate realizes that she is not going to be able to walk much farther. Not until this is resolved, one way or the other. And if it gets resolved ‘the other’ way then she will be dead and presumably not walking around very much at all. Unless the mind parasites are a lot more tricky than she thinks, but anyway it won’t be her problem. Kate has never before in her life been as confident as she is of this one: that she will not live another day, indeed not another hour with the most intimate chambers of her mind profaned by these foul vermin.
On her left, Kate is aware of a wide open space: a parking lot for the U, although not too long ago it was a workshop and woodlot for Fingerle lumber, back when people were till building new things instead of repurposing old ones. The shallow corrugated metal sheds that used to keep the rain off of lumber have now been turned into the better parking spaces. Probably the Second Assistant Deputy Administrators get to park in those spaces. Kate turns into the lot, stumbling a little on some uneveness of the ground as it transitions from the aged cement sidewalk to the dirt and gravel of the parking lot. She almost can’t see the world around her anymore, already beginning the descent into the inner space of the mind. But one shed in particular, the long low one nearest the street, is angled nicely to keep the sun off her and hide her from view of people driving to work. And it’s more than half empty. Maybe all the Second Assistant Deputy Administrators are all gone up north. There have been articles on MLive lately saying that the U is moving a lot of stuff up somewhere close to Traverse City.
Shuffling into the cool shade, Kate finds a nice empty section of the shed and sits down on the gritty earth, facing outward with her back against the shed’s warm wall. And the outer world goes away.
Inside it’s much larger, but much darker.
It’s the ruined landscape that Morpheus first showed Neo on his Deep Image Radiola Television of the Imagination. Kate smiles. What Morpheus said when he showed this scene to Neo was This is the world, as it exists today.
“Well it certainly sucks!” Kate says aloud.
The landscape is Ann Arbor of the Future, and it does not look like a very nice future at all. In this darkened landscape Kate finds herself standing now, and the little corrugated shed is just a jumble of rusted metal. In fact, it looks like a pretty substantial bomb went off right near this spot, apparently many years ago. There are no structures remaining nearby to obscure her vision of the city’s skyline to the north, such as it is.
The city has been destroyed. The only buildings remaining are shattered shards, burnt skeletons open to the sky, illuminated only by moonlight and the distant flashes of lightning, inhabited only by crows. Or at least the only honest inhabitants are crows. In the lower levels, down among the rotted wainscotting and corroded wiring, there are darker things that only now begin to move, uncurling themselves, unlimbering many-jointed legs. She needn’t go anywhere to find them. They will come to her, scenting her blood, drawn to her by the beating of her heart.
Soon, she hears them: the tink of a dislodged pebble striking rusted iron, a momentary rattle that could not have been caused by the thin cold wind, the subtle rasp of a chitinous carapace scraping over concrete.
Smiling, Kate gestures with both hands to her body and where her hands point glowing traceries of blue neon appear on her clothing, kind of like the suits from the original Tron movie, except only about half as bright. And not as cool. She doesn’t remember Tron very well. That was like a million years ago. Anyway, her suit of armor mustn’t be too impressive. This next part, Kate reflects, could get kind of—icky.
Let’s see, what did they use as weapons in Tron? It was like Frisbees or something, wasn’t it? Reaching out her hand, Kate forms a glowing Frisbee in her grasp. But then frowns. This can’t be right, it looks idiotic. Not that looks should matter, but—damn. OK. Whatever. You go into battle with what you’ve got.
Drawing a deep breath (Do you think that’s air you’re breathing?) Kate looks around and loses some of her excitement at what she is about to attempt. If this city is an even halfway decent representation of the state of her—what? Mind? Soul? Is there a difference?—then poor little Katie is in bad shape indeed. There is trash in the street that looks like it must date back to her childhood. Not just one building, not just most buildings, but every building is broken, run down, decaying, open to the sky. Do those represent mental structures of some kind? They must, and they must be important ones. The city is made out of them! What kind of hope is there of ever repairing a place like this? Looking around, Kate feels a sense of despair settling on her from the storm-clouded sky. Has something happened to improve her mental abilities lately? Yes, obviously. But frikking look at this place! What human being, no matter how ‘improved’ could possibly—
“God damn it!” Kate shouts into the gloom. She activates her Frisbee of Doom. “Come out and fight, you little weasels! This bullshit doesn’t work anymore on me!”
This is how they operate! This is how they have always operated, since she was a little girl! Since the very day that joy and magic and wonderfulness went out of the world. (I’m a birdie!) Where did all the magic go? These fuckers smothered it and then they ate its corpse! They smothered it in self-doubt, fear of being different, a hundred little doubts and fears and hesitations and distractions that Kate has always mistaken for her own thoughts. That has always been the great strength of the Mind Parasites, which they know they have lost now that Kate has become aware of them.
Kate grips her Battle Frisbee more tightly as she detects the first movement. Some kind of huge spider—no. It’s a hand. A clawed hand reaching around the edge of one cement monolith. It’s big, and the fingers have too many joints. Overhead the clouds gather more thickly, blotting out yet more of the already-weak daylight. Thunder rumbles closer than before.
The mind parasite steps out from behind the tilted-up cement slab, and for fuck’s sake the fucking thing is eight fucking feet tall! Fuck! It’s not a little scuttling ratlike thing. It’s one of the aliens from the movie Aliens. Its blind face leers at her as it shuffles forward over the broken concrete. It is sleek, powerful, glistening, deadly. Its mouth, dripping with the creature’s own blood which is an acid that can dissolve anything! (OK, Kate once thought that was the stupidest idea in the history of science fiction, but it is not nearly so goddamn funny when one of them is slouching toward you from thirty feet away.)
The creature’s glass-fanged mouth opens in a horrible parody of humanity, and distorted words issue from its stiff mouth.
“Who do you thhink you arrre?” it says. “You cannn’t do thisss. You aren’tt smarrtt enough. You’ll sscrew it upp llike you sscrew upp evverythhingg ellse!” Leering, the monstrous creature takes a step closer. The idiotic frisbee shakes in Kate’s hands.
And another one appears. A manhole cover slides gratingly aside, and it climbs swiftly up to the surface to stand beside its partner in slime.
“You nnever ssee thhingss thhrough,” this one rasps. “You’re sso laazzy. You cann’t kkeep your mmind onn annythhinng. You cann’t evenn kkeep yourr aparrtmentt ccleean!”
Desperately, Kate looks back and forth between the two creatures and makes a little inadvertent squeaky noise in the back of her throat. The neon outlines of her Tron suit of armor flicker. From the darkening sky, thunder rolls still closer. And more of the monsters arrive. They are coming out from behind rusted sheets of corrugated metal, from behind the corners of a ruined shed, from the inside of a tipped-over dumpster. And they’re ll talking.
“Nnobboddy likess you. Whhy cann’t you bbe llike the othher ggirrlss?”
“Whhy ddonn’t you jjusst rresst? Thiss iss sso hharrd! You know it’ss nnot ggood for you tto sstrainn yourrsself too mmuch.”
“Shut up!” Kate shouts. “Shut up!” Her armor is flickering not every time one of them speaks, and the light ring on her frisbee has almost faded away. “Leave me alone!”
But of course, Kate understands now, they can’t leave her alone.
These creatures are the real problem, not the worm that was in the back of her neck. That was just the delivery mechanism for the eggs that became these things. These are the things that have undermined her life, weakened her will, and confused her thoughts since the day they first—impregnated her. Turning her into one of their zombies who was to have eventually passed on their eggs to her own children.
Thunder rolls directly overhead. There are a dozen of them now, of course, and they have spread out into a rough half-circle which is slowly advancing on her position. Kate trembles as she looks around at them slouching, shuffling and slavering. Her Frisbee of Doom is dark and dead now, her Tron armor outlining itself with only with the faintest glow when it is able to light up at all. Kate understand now why they are not rushing her yet. She understands why they are appearing to her now as such enormous and deadly creatures. She understands why the half-circle of twelve gradually splits into two segments, leaving a gap in the middle. Finally, Kate understands everything.
Based on her own visions of the gray worms protruding from the back of the head of practically every person she sees, Kate knows that the mind parasites are widespread, probably universal. She supposes that each person has their own individual copies of these things, a suite of them personalized to work best with that individual, but that the fundamental nature and general techniques of these things are quite similar from one human being to another. That just seems reasonable. And moreover, it seems very likely that each person’s batch of parasites really have two purposes: one toward themselves, but also a higher purpose with respect to their race.
For themselves , each batch of parasites just want to stay alive: diverting mental and spiritual energy from their host to their own use. In this purpose it is important to remain unobserved, because it’s not going to be much fun for anyone if your host is in a constant state of horror and trying to stamp you out. So when she first noticed them, they were represented as subtle, scuttling things, barely visible at the corner of her thoughts, always camouflaging their activities so that she thought of their actions as her thought, her sloppy mental habits, and so on. In fact, even after she first noticed them, they were able to make her almost immediately forget, diverting her attention to the gray worm-thing which was actually the least of her worries.
Of course they will normally use camouflage and deception rather than naked force. They want continued existence and a comfortable life for themselves. But in cases where an individual like Kate somehow breaks free of their grasp, then a new imperative rises. Unlike some humans, the mind parasites know their own lives must be expendable when the survival of their species is threatened. By becoming consciously aware of them, Kate has become a potentially serious threat. Who knows how much one awakened person might do to the parasites’ comfortable world? So the gloves are coming off. No more little scuttling shapes, no more hiding, no more subtle influencing. These creatures are coming to kill her. And they know more about her mind than she does! As the understanding that she may not survive this battle fills Kate’s veins with ice water, she sees that her belief is correct. The reason that the Aliens have left a deliberate gap in the middle of their line is that there was one more guest of honor. It emerges from the shadows of one of largest ruined metal shed: half again taller than the others, more than three times as massive.
She’s the queen and she is one big mean bitch.
The queen steps out slowly from the shadows, her great bony tail waving sinuously behind her. Her mouth stretches wide and from its cavernous opening that smaller, pharyngeal jaw slowly protrudes, no bigger than a clenched fist, in fact pretty much the same size as a human jaw. In fact, Kate realizes with a surge of nausea, the queen’s second jaw is a human mouth, with a human’s lips and tongue. The rod of bone and slime that supports it extends outward until it is a good twelve inches in front of her peeled-back lips. This is the extra set of jaws that the xenomorphs in the movies use to deliver the death blow. In the movies it’s not human, though. The pink tongue licks the second jaw’s teeth and it begins to work, speaking.
“Thhey lleftt beccausse youu werren’tt ggood ennoughh,” the queen says. “Thhey lleftt beccausse thhey diddn’tt wanntt youu witthh thhem. Youu knnow thhey bellievedd in thhe Rapture. Wwell, thhey were righht. Thhe Bommbb wass itt! Thhey werre ttakenn, anndd youu werre nnott. Thhey arre inn Hheavenn witthh Jeessuss nnow.” She grins more widely, and so, horribly, does her smaller mouth. “Anndd youu arre inn Hhell, withh uss!”
Tears blur Kate’s vision, and the last vestiges of the neon tracings of her armor vanish.
They really can kill her in here, Kate knows that now. They really do know the working of her mind better than she does. They can lock her into this dream or whatever it is, and find a way to destroy her consciousness. Maybe somebody will find her sitting in that shed back in the Real World with dried blood on her face and chest. In fact, maybe the parasites will even survive! Maybe they can get enough mind-force to sustain themselves even without full consciousness operating. Or maybe the queen wasn’t kidding! Yes, that must be it. The queen wasn’t kidding at all. They will just keep her conscious but somehow locked in here forever, with them. Well, that really would be Hell indeed, wouldn’t it?
But the Aliens have miscalculated. In fact, it was the queen herself who screwed the pooch. Kate has been changing too fast for the old bitch lately. Visiting places where maybe she cannot even follow. The old bug is trying to use the fears that used to work on her, but she’s seen too much lately to fully believe those things anymore. And now she even knows that those fears, even from her youngest years, were never real. They were always just weapons. Poison, to keep her weak and stupid, to drain her, so these fucking things could feed.
“Katie, honey,” her mother admonishes. “Why don’t you ask them to leave?”
“No, Mom,” Kate replies aloud. “I want them right here. All of them.” And she knows that they are indeed all here. That’s what it meant when the queen showed up. The gang’s all here.
They are within just a few yards now. In a few seconds the queen will lunge forward, impaling Kate with her pointed tail, and that will be that.
But there are other stories in Kate’s head in addition to the Aliens and the burnt-out cityscape of the Matrix. There is the Colin Wilson story where she got the name for these Mind Parasites from in the first place. In that story—or maybe it was in the Philosopher’s Stone, she always gets the action scenes in those two books mixed up—the protagonist at one point, struggling for his life against an attack of the parasites, somehow gets in touch with a source of power so immensely greater than what his own mind can generate that he actually feels sorry for the little bastards and stops blowtorching them. Well, Kate is not that guy. But she does happen to know where she can get just such a source of power.
The queen is so close now that Kate can feel the blasts of the creature’s foul breath on her face. Eau de l’abattoir.
Kate looks up into the queen’s leering, glass-fanged visage.
“Say hello,” she says, “to my little friends.”
And just like that, there is one of the Joyful Little Blue Spheres Behind the Universe in her hand.
So you guys can even show up in here? Kate asks the brilliant little sphere as time momentarily stops.
Sure we can! Sure we can! it assures her joyously.
Well, good. That’s what I was hoping.
And she tosses the sphere into the old bitch’s mouth. The human one.
And lightning cracks directly overhead with a flash that splits the sky, and suddenly the Little Blue Stars of Reality are falling like rain, and although they remain joyous—they are always joyous—they do not tolerate creatures like the parasites. Oh no, not at all. Each time one of the spheres strikes one of the xenomorphs it simply falls straight through, burning an inch-wide hole through the alien’s body lengthwise as though—well, as though it weren’t there. Then the little balls fly up joyously into the sky, to have another go. The alien xenomorph parasite creatures fall to the broken cement, lashing their tails and screaming their broken-glass screams. The queen claws at her face with long-fingered hands, ripping bleeding furrows in her snout. (Be careful! That blood is acid that can dissolve anything!) She whips her head back and forth, both mouths open. But the Little Blue Sphere just kind of rolls back into her inner throat, propelled by its own special magnetism. As her warriors begin to die, the queen’s body fills with blue light. On either side of her smooth cranial arc, two points where her armor is thin glow brighter than the rest. In addition to the light, those points radiate hatred of the despised host-species. I knew they must have eyes somewhere, Kate thinks. The queen has time to scream once more before her head and body explode.
And, out in the Real World, something is happening.
Kate’s awareness flickers between both worlds. In the shed where she is sitting down, in the Ann Arbor that has not been bombed out, where the sky is blue and the April morning is getting pleasantly warm, her eyes flicker open.
There is a man standing in front of her, not wearing the best clothes but not a bum either, not as young as he used to be but not yet old, not threatening but just looking kind of worried.
“Miss?” he says down to her. “Are you OK?”
As the scene flicks in and out, Kate manages to speak to him.
“Yes,” she says. “Just—I’m just getting clean.”
The man’s face saddens. “Good luck,” he says. “I been there.”
It takes Kate fifteen minutes to stand up, and another five minutes to just get from the shed back to the sidewalk on the east side of Main Street. Then she stands for another five minutes at the edge of the sidewalk, leaning back a little against the warm surface of the corrugated metal shed, just watching traffic move, and staring at the way the sunlight looks on the red and green and tan siding and trim and shingles of two houses across the street.
She certainly does feel weak, maybe weaker than she has ever felt before. But that wouldn’t have made her this slow ever before. Kate is moving slowly just because she wants to stare at everything. At the way the sunlight glints off the glass and chrome of moving cars. At the way the wind touches the young tree leaves and the springtime birds flit around getting ready to settle down. At the way the black electrical wires look against the blue of the sky, and the texture of the weathered wooden poles that hold them up. She wants to look at everything because—
“Because I’ve never seen it before,” Kate whispers to the world.
But eventually she learns how to walk again, and in another fifteen minutes she has accomplished the greatest journey of her life: the distance from Madison down to Pauline on Main Street, slightly less than four tenths of a mile, with a new miracle every few steps.
She thought she was enlightened three weeks ago, when she first saw the pixels of reality. Little did she know that she was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences older and greater than man’s, yet as mortal as his own. Kate smiles, but loses the levity quickly. Nothing is an accident, not even a joke. Is it possible that the parasites are indeed older than humanity? A chill flitters through Kate’s soul. Is it possible that the parasites have bred human beings to be more—tractable? They just tried to kill her because she had become dangerous to them. If they have been carrying out that policy on a grand scale for a long time—doesn’t that amount to a breeding program?
A street called Hoover intersects with Main Street, going first off to the right, and then twenty yards later off to the left. Both halves of Hoover are lovely, tree-lined little streets with lovely little houses. No one would think that the residents of these little homes are wealthy, but the people in this area seem to have nevertheless done their best with what they have to make a pleasant life. One of them even has some solar panels on top of the roof! A little help for when the power outages come.
It’s not just physical beauty that is affecting her far more than it ever has before, it is the emotion implicit in these views of daily life, scenes that she has walked past a hundred times before, that now fill her heart to bursting.
She thought she was free three weeks ago? She was merely on a longer leash. She shocked the parasites by changing—however it is that she has changed. And that, the what, how, and why of it, is of course an enormous question in itself, although perhaps a little less urgent than monsters from the depths of the mind enslaving all of humanity. But in any case she shocked the parasites and they retreated and regrouped, made the decision that she had to be killed even though that would mean their own deaths. And then they attacked.
During the last three weeks, Kate believed that she had already defeated them. Actually, she believed they weren’t even real but were mere figments of her diseased brain. That concept, of course, the whole brain cancer nonsense, was their last line of defense.
She believed she was free of them because she had defeated the perpetual self-weakening, self-defeating voices that she thought was their only effect upon her. In fact, the parasites themselves would probably have agreed! It is precisely those constant voices, those perpetual small underminings that prevented Kate from using the mental and spiritual energy that was her birthright as a common human being, and the crafting and camouflaging of those anesthetic messages was the entire daily occupation of the foreign creatures of the mind that had installed themselves to feed upon her.
But now, walking down Miraculous Main Street in Ann Arbor on a sunny April morning, with the Great Stadium of the University of Michigan just hoving into view, it is obvious to Kate that the most important effect of the parasites was of course the energy theft itself, which mostly continued over the last three weeks from simple inertia. Even though they had been shocked away from the sources of energy, Kate was simply not in the habit of using the power that her mind was capable of producing, so she didn’t. And the parasites still fed. Now, with them actually destroyed, she is at last, for the first time since she was a child, basking in the full flow of life that the wellsprings of her mind have always produced. Well, for the first time since she was six or seven years old. Kate smiles. Will she start hopping down the sidewalk? No, that kind of play is proper to a child. At the grand old age of twenty-three, other pleasures are possible, other methods proper. Kate just doesn’t know yet what they are.
A police siren begins to blare but then shuts down immediately, as though the shiny blue law enforcement vehicle had hiccuped.
“Miss do you want to step over to the car, please?” there is only one officer in the vehicle, which Kate thought they weren’t doing anymore, so he has used the car’s speaker to command her attention.
Kate reluctantly directs her gaze to the vehicle. She had been focusing on the top of the stadium coming into view, and the way a phalanx of high clouds are looking like upturned wisps as they scud in from the southwest. The police car is just inside at the entrance to one of the game-day parking lots, partially hidden by a small spruce tree so he has some hope of pulling over a speeding vehicle traveling northward. It’s not much of a hope, considering that any car or truck doing more that thirty would be risking serious damage from the potholes. She supposes that the officer’s question was meant to be a command.
Kate walks over to the car, crossing the parking lot driveway to approach the police car’s driver’s side. The officer apparently prefers to remain seated.
“Have we been doing any drugs today miss?” the officer says as she comes to a halt a couple paces away from his open window.
The HomeSec officer is only a few years older than she is, and Kate finds his face immediately fascinating. He is the first—
Kate smiles. She almost thought He is the first human I have seen. The first she has seen since the parasites’ draining influence was removed. It already seems like a long time ago, although she has done nothing since then but walk half a mile.
“Is that a funny question?”
“No,” Kate tells him. “I’m just happy.”
He has a simple face: thin eyebrows with a slight ridge above them, eyes a nice hazel color but a little small-looking in his largish face, strong lines of cheekbones, already receding hairline mitigated by a buzz-cut.
“Well, that’s good,” he says tersely. “Could you look into the camera please, miss?” He holds up a little black box that’s tethered to his dashboard. Kate looks at it with a neutral expression until a tiny red light on the front of it blinks. The officer turns toward his car’s display and starts touching the screen, apparently not very worried that Kate will produce a weapon and attack him.
There is a flaccid grey worm hanging out the back of his neck.
Hearing the sound of Kate’s indrawn breath, the young officer says “It’ll just be a minute. Network’s kinda slow today.”
Well, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Everybody has them, probably, except for very young children. Maybe there’s a remote Himalayan village someplace where people don’t have the worms, and everybody wears white robes. Will they always be visible to her now? Thankfully, no. Kate realizes that she can make the parasites’ worm visible or invisible with a slight change of—not focus, exactly. It’s more like a change in perspective, like the way that optical illusion with a printed box works: how you can make it look like the box is angled upward or downward just by changing a kind of mental point of view.
And of course it will be a lot nicer to not see these things all the time. She notices one odd thing, though, before making the worm go away. She can’t actually see its back end. And now Kate realizes that she has seen this before but didn’t really notice it because she was too busy being disgusted and horrified. The worms don’t actually have clearly-defined back ends, but instead kind of blur away. Kate is quite certain that what she sees when she looks at these things is a kind of allegory, like the fight she had fifteen minutes or a lifetime ago with the Alien Parasites and their Queen. Her mind creates images that let her perceive a certain reality, and interact with it appropriately. So—what does it mean that the worms don’t actually have ends? A mystery for another time.
“OK, Miss, may I see some ID?”
“Sure.” Kate extracts her USID from her purse and hands it to the young officer.
The parasites and their worms are not actually very interesting. Well, OK. An alien species (That’s what her vision was suggesting, Kate realizes.) that has conquered the Earth and inserted itself into every human mind to drain their vitality forever has got to be at least mildly interesting. But what Kate finds immensely interesting is just people. Plain old people. One effect of her newly available energy is that Kate can see so many things about the officer without even especially trying. The tension in his facial muscles, the way he holds his shoulders, the way he moves his torso as he turns back toward her. It’s like watching interpretive modern dance. No, it’s more like watching a toddler walking around and being able to tell what he’s thinking just from his posture. It is such an amazing experience for Kate that she is kind of staring at the man when he finally finishes turning back toward her, which he unfortunately manages to notice.
“OK, Miss Spence?” the officer says, frowning. He doesn’t like people looking at him too intently when he is detaining them. Kate steps closer and looks directly at him. She knows that he is looking to see whether her pupils are dilated. “Have we been doing any drugs this morning?”
There was a time when an American walking down the street would have expected that they could not be stopped and examined because a police officer didn’t like what they were looking at, or the expression on their face. That was before 9/11 and 10/11 and the Collapse and the War. It was before local police forces in all over the country were replaced by a single nationalized police force reporting to the US Department of Homeland Security.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a moral principle but no paycheck will gladly trade the one to get the other. That seems sad enough, but, worse yet, they go so cheap! What ought to be life’s deepest convictions are sold for the price of a mortgage payment, and it doesn’t take very much of a mortgage either, buddy! Have they no pride?
Well that’s probably the basic problem, isn’t it? Maybe if people had any pride they would realize that, if you allow yourself the moral flexibility to sell your principles for any price at all, then pretty soon you’ll get bid down to zero. When they show you a job and you hesitate, the masters will say Well, we could always get someone else, and an economic Darwinian process will guarantee survival of the cheapest. A result which you helped to insure, by participating, by being willing.
She has no idea what they were like before the Collapse, but since she first became aware of such creatures as policemen Kate has always seen them as large, powerful, and cruel. But when there is a master with money who says Enforce my Will or Starve, and a cop who is willing to take the money and go beat the shit out of the peasantry, and a peasant who is too afraid of the cop’s baton to demand their rights and defend themselves—it now seems to Kate that at least two of those people are victims. And quite possibly all three.
“Oh no, officer,” Kate says, shaking her head. “No drugs.”
It’s so hard to keep her mind on conversing with the man. Looking at the planes of his face, at the interplay of muscles now as well as their longer history visible in the shapes of bones, Kate can actually see the current and long term effects of this man’s mind parasites. How strange to finally understand that, in speaking to someone like this officer, she is dealing with two separate entities: the man himself as well as his gang to parasites. Since he was a child the man has felt a force of oppression in his life, which he has projected outward, telling himself Well, that’s life. He knows in his soul that he is weaker than he should be: less intelligent, less able to concentrate, less spiritually brave. He explains it by telling himself Well, I’m just not as bright as some, but so what? And he assuages his frustration by in turn oppressing others. The parasites encourage this sort of thing. By keeping him focused on externalities it prevents the human from detecting the real source of his oppression, while simultaneously helping to establish and maintain the position of the parasites in other humans. Its like those fungal infections of ants that can get into their brains and control an infected ant’s behavior to increase the odds of the fungus spreading to other ants.
“So,” the policeman says, “you always walk around smiling? Looking at the sky?” He holds out her ID card for Kate to retrieve.
It’s kind of like that moment when you’re dying, when supposedly your whole life flashes before your eyes, except Kate is not dying—hopefully—and what she sees is limited to the next thirty seconds: how this interaction would have played out yesterday.
Kate: (fearful and defensive) I was smiling because I was happy for ten seconds. Is that a crime now? Thank god you were here to catch it!
Cop: (angry. Opens his car door and climbs out.) Yeah, or maybe you’re taking a little walk with your friend Molly. OK, Miss, you want to come over here and put your hands on the hood, please?
Kate: Not especially.
Cop: (scowling) What?
Kate: (looking angry now, but only to conceal increased fear. Her voice trembles.) You asked if I wanted to hold down your car and I declined. Would you like me to diagram the sentences for you?
Cop: All right, that’s about enough. (Places right hand on his holstered pistol.) Step over to the car right now, stop a pace away from it, and place your hands on the hood. Right now!
Kate: (angry, but moves to comply) Terrific. Just terrific. Are you going to tell my boss why you made me late? (Leans down to place her hands on the hood.)
(As Cop approaches Kate from behind a large old blue car pulls suddenly to the curb just beyond the parking lot entrance. Five young men emerge from the car, three of whom have tattooed faces. All five of the Gang Members have revolvers stuck visibly in the front of their pants.)
Gang Member 1: Hey, Cobani! You play with the chikas now? Maybe we can show you how, eh?
Kate: (Turns her head to look at the gang members. The one who has spoken has a bad knife scar on the left side of his face that makes him look like an absolute devil when he grins at her.)
Cop: (to Kate) Don’t you goddamn move. (Cop steps behind Kate to pin her against the car and draws his weapon, keeping it pointed at the ground.) (to Gang Members) That’s far enough right there!
(Gang Members continue approaching.)
Yesterday. Fear and anger in a self-reinforcing loop, turning a good moment into an arbitrary disaster before anybody knows what’s happening. And how much of it the direct result of intervention by the parasites? Not much—just a little nudge here and there. They can play these situations like a maestro plays a fiddle. They’ve been at it a long time.
But today—maybe there’s another way?
What has it been since Kate destroyed her parasites? Forty minutes? Twenty-four hundred seconds? A lifetime. But she can still remember what it was like to be a prisoner in her own mind. What can you do for a person who has been in a dungeon ever since he was eight years old?
You can send him a ray of light.
Kate smiles at the officer, which has the effect of riveting his attention. That’s something she has always known how to do. The next part will be a little trickier.
As she reaches for the card, Kate talks to him. “I guess I’m feeling kind of special today,” she says, “because I just found out I don’t have cancer.”
Then just the right fraction of a second for him to process what she just said, for the full import of the statement to begin to blossom into full consciousness. Although it is positive, this is a shocking statement: the kind of thing that, if they were friends, would have him grabbing her shoulders and shouting. And just as the meaning of her words is at the height of consolidating his full attention, Kate’s hand reaches her ID card and her fingers brush his, just slightly, and apparently without her intention.
It’s in the instant that her fingertips brush his knuckles that she tries the experiment. At the very moment that the policeman’s mind is most focused on the idea of She had cancer before and now she doesn’t, Kate sends a surge of energy—a little bit of the pure force of her own life—from herself into the man. Of course she has never done this before, never been remotely able to do anything of the sort before, but in the moment the possibility occurred to her she imagined how it ought to work, how it ought to feel to summon up the energy and send it like a spark of electricity from her skin to his, and she tried it, and it has obviously worked. The man’s pupils dilate, he inhales, he blinks. And, importantly, because he was concentrating on her surprising statement, he has missed the brush of her fingers entirely. He thinks that the surge of well-being that he is feeling came from Kate’s statement rather than her touch.
The policeman exhales a breath that he has been holding for twenty years. For the first time Kate thinks that, in time, this guy could be good looking.
“Well, goddamn,” he says. “I guess that is a pretty good reason to be looking at the sky.”
“Thanks.” Kate smiles back, her eyes meeting his. “The only better thing will be when nobody has it. When everybody is healthy.” A statement to get him thinking about bigger issues, and now the last trick. One more thing she hasn’t done before, but which suddenly seems so straightforward that she thinks maybe she has done it before without quite realizing what she was doing. Kate sends a thought at the man: Forget me. And she knows right away that it has worked. The unhealthy attraction that the man was already starting to constellate around her immediately stops growing and starts fading. She can feel it, like a dissipating charge in the air. Sunlight catches the officer’s face and he turns to look at the place where the sun is shining out from breaking clouds toward the southeast.
“Can I go?” Kate asks gently.
He turns back to look at her. Of course he hasn’t literally forgotten that she’s there, but the policeman is suddenly thinking big thoughts about life, maybe for the first time in months or years.
“Yeah, you bet,” he smiles. “Have a good day.”
Kate gives him one more smile. As she turns away, an old blue car cruises past with five young men shadowed inside. She can’t see them very clearly, but the driver has an ugly scar on the left side of his face. None of them look toward her, and the car continues on its way.
From the shadow of the grand colonnade of Michigan Stadium, Kate emerges into a land of open green fields and gentle, manicured hills. To her right is the wide expanse of Pioneer High School’s front lawn, while to her left she can glimpse between trees the rolling fairways and fearsome sand traps of the University golf course. There is a broad sidewalk on the Pioneer High side of the street but Kate would like to stay on the east side of Main as she continues her journey. Unfortunately, that means walking a dirt tightrope with whizzing traffic three feet from her right shoulder and branches from the brush scraping her on the left. But just as Kate slows to ponder, she sees something: a faint fork in the dirt footpath which leads off into the thickest part of the understory brush.
Two paths diverged in a wood and I,
Don’t know this poem but I’ll fake it!
As a wise man advised, when you come to a fork
In the road—you ought to take it!
Pushing out of her way the newly-leafed brush, Kate sees that the trail continues, faintly, down the steep hillside. Her disappearance into the bushes couldn’t have been seen by more than a couple of the oncoming motorists, and anyway, why would they care. Kate cannot imagine that she looks like an Arab with a bomb on her back, and in any case most people will instinctively obey the current official admonition of the Department of Homeland Security which is “If you see something—fuck off!”
After the first couple of steps the going is easier because the underbrush thins out beneath the full-sized trees. It’s mysterious beneath the big trees. With the sound of traffic still perfectly audible behind her and the brightness of the golf course up ahead, this ten-yard-wide forest is a separate little ribbon of a world. And who can say where it might lead? Stooping to get beneath a branch, Kate grins. You know something’s up when a footpath leads straight up to an apparently impenetrable chain-link fence. And there is a little wooden sign, just a piece plywood, that has been wired to the eight foot steel post that is just to the right of where the path intersects the fence. It’s a scrap just a few inches wide but more than a foot tall. With its back to the post it must be almost invisible to any groundskeepers working inside the golf course. Approaching to within arm’s reach, Kate looks up at the sign. It is hand-lettered in Sharpie marker and faded, but still legible.
And see ye not
yon bonny road
That winds about
yon fernie brae?
That is the road
to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I
this night maun gae.
The fence has been artfully cut from top to bottom by removing a single one of the zig-zag wires, a few pieces of which have then been employed to affix the sign to the post, and to lightly re-fasten the fence together so the breach is not obvious.
Smiling, Kate undoes the cosmetic fastener and opens the door to fair Elfland.
It is much nicer strolling south along the edge of the golf course, in the shade of the partially leafed-out trees. Walking in the rough, and scenting air that might have just blown from the first springtime of the world.
Being free of the parasites is not like suddenly being elevated to Olympian stature. Kate can feel extra energy, extra life force in her mind and body, ande she has already been able to use some of it to do thigs that would have seemed remarkable just yesterday, but she can also feel that even now almost all of it is going to waste. Dissipating into the background ambient white noise of the spirit.
Will it always be thus? Certainly not. Although energy alone is not enough, it will not be long before Kate learns the skills required to use that energy. Practice makes perfect, but look what she has done already! Kate has had no more than an hour’s practice with her newly-freed mind, yetshe has already found a way to significantly help a man. And, by the way, avert what might have been a disaster for him as well as herself.
Already, Kate can glimpse the future. What she just did with the policeman, she will soon be able to do more and better. She will be able to help people. Give them little rays of light in their darkness, little chinks of hope cracking through the cold stone walls. For Kate has no doubt in her mind that practically every human being on Earth over the age of seven is as infected as she was up until one hour ago. In fact, for most of them, more so. Kate has always known that she was different from others. Maybe that’s why she was somehow able to detect the parasites and finally defeat them. But the important question now is—what if it turns out that she is able to help others with their own infestations of the parasites? What if she ends up being able to cure people?
Kate steps over a fallen dead branch then stops, holding onto a sapling to steady herself on the uneven ground. She looks out eastward through the screen of small trees to the golf course fairway, bright new green grass mixed with lingering winter damage.
When faced with a moral quandary, we should consult the stored wisdom of the ages that has been preserved and passed down.
It was Spider Man’s father, Robert Parker, who said “With great power comes great responsibility.” It was Edmund Burke or John Stuart Mills or possibly Marilyn Monroe when she was in bed with John F. Kennedy who said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” It was General George S. Patton who said “Better to fight for something than live for nothing.” And finally, it was the ascended master Yogi Berra himself who said “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
Near the southern edge of the golf course now, the faint foot trail runs straight into the fence again, and again the fence has been skillfully cut and a narrow strip of a sign made of plywood placed on the post. This time its faded lettering says:
The road goes
ever on and on
out from the door
where it began.
Smiling, Kate passes through the narrow gate and replaces the little scrap wire latch behind her.
Cortez, upon reaching the new world, knew that she had come to a fork in the road. She knew that, once having glimpsed the grand vistas of the possible, the explorer can never return to the realm of the conventional. Calmly setting fire to her ships, she stepped through the fence and walked the few paces past bushes to the foot trail leading southward through the tall dry grasses on the edge of Main Street. Looking far beyond the stoplight at Scio Church Road, gazing at the distant horizon and the way that the scudding clouds from the southwest look like new ships setting out toward new realms, she smiled and whispered to herself, saying: The future sure ain’t what it used to be.