The Epiphany of Mrs. Kugla
“Now watch closely. Do you see the little triangular ones surrounding the virus? Those are antibodies. They identify bad guys and hold them down until the policeman can arrive! In this case, the white blood cell which you can see approaching on the right.”
Mrs. Kugla gestured to the immense pale mass closing in on the restrained microorganism. Slow but inevitable death for the virus. Almost tempting to feel sorry for the little guy. The film was irritatingly grainy, obviously worn out after decades of reuse. The rapid clicking and humming of the projector also conspired to drown out whatever the narrator was saying. She just talked over it anyway.
“Now, I don’t know if you heard, but Shana here just made a very clever observation. The antibodies perform a role in your bodies quite like the Erratics do in our colony. Isn’t that right? And they must be exceedingly good at it, as otherwise even a single virus would mean certain death.”
I glanced over at the only Erratic in our class. He grinned smugly, making no effort to hide that he knew of his greater importance relative to the rest of us. Even to me. I remember when Mom got the mail from colony administration saying I’d been identified as a probable Erratic and should come in for testing.
I don’t remember any time she’s ever been that proud of me. I wish she hadn’t sent out notice to all the relatives and otherwise made such a big deal out of it, because following the tests we then received a mail notifying us that I’d scored two points short. Not quite an Erratic. Deprived of that life by the width of a hair.
“You must understand, the Erratic phenomenon is only expressed beyond a certain threshold of pattern recognition capability” the counselor had told my weeping mother. “Everything sort of clicks at that point. A narrow island of cognitive focus, sweet spot if you like. Anything short of that is a disability.”
She argued with him, though I tried many times to tell her it was needless. “Because the Erratic maps out every possible interpretation of every little detail he or she encounters, they're easily overwhelmed even by everyday life. But because they are then able, by some not yet understood process, to immediately eliminate all but the most probable interpretation….well, you can surely imagine the benefits.
If the government didn’t snap them all up early on and put them to work filtering out...unwanted visitors, they’d likely dominate finance or any other field where accelerated pattern recognition confers a significant advantage.”
The unspoken corollary was that if you come close to that condition but fall just short, it bought you nothing. I could identify ‘em alright, but not always, and with an unacceptable frequency of false positives.
My vision filled with geometric shapes. Faintly forming, dissolving then reforming dynamically on various surfaces, illustrating proportional relationships between them. I noticed significant sequences of high and low pitch in Mrs. Kugla’s voice as she narrated the film for us. I could see the estimated trajectory of the white blood cell as a vector, though it was not part of the film. A constant barrage of this sort of imagery makes learning anything difficult.
I’ve spent no small number of years and sessions in Illogic therapy learning to filter out such information if it’s not relevant. That’s the missing piece, intuitively knowing which parts of it are relevant to what’s happening. I looked at the Erratic again with undisguised envy. Close only counts in horseshoes.
“So you see, the organization of our society is quite like how your own body is laid out,” Mrs. Kugla continued. “With each part of government or other societal institution analogous to the various organs in your body, perfor-....” She stopped cold. We all waited for the rest of the sentence. She stammered slightly, eyes now wide, trying to finish the thought.
“Per...Performing theeeEEAAY-YAAAEEE-HHHAAAAGGAH” a long, thin crack appeared from her forehead down the contours of her face to her chin. It began weeping a thick black fluid. Then suddenly, the two halves split apart in a violent fountain of oily black fluid, showering those in the front row. We all began screaming.
Inside the hollow outer shell was simply a writhing mass of viscous black gel. The halves of her head fell away and the thrashing cluster of thin black tendrils radiating from where it’d been a moment ago began spinning about, latching onto whatever was nearest. Red emergency lights I’d only seen come on before during fire drills now illuminated, and a piercing siren sounded over the school intercom system.
Throngs of terrified students stampeded from one side of the room to the other trying to get away as the flailing mess of bubbling goo continued to hatch out of what’d been Mrs. Kugla’s body a minute ago. It stood up and walked towards us, lower half still her legs and dress but a carnival of impossible tangled flesh from the waist up.
Just then, from doorways on either side of the classroom emerged men in shiny foil fire-repellant garments with glossy black faceplates. Both held weapons of some kind which they leveled at what remained of Mrs. Kugla and immolated it. I could feel the heat from the fire on my face and arms despite the distance.
It shrieked, at first sounding human but the cry broke down as the creature burned into ear splitting intermittent chirping, then gurgles. Then at last it fell to its knees and the upper half of it collapsed onto the desks in front of it. I still screamed, though in large part because everyone else was. The next into the room were the school nurse, principal and an EMT.
We all had to go through screening after that. I dreaded undressing for a stranger. Never embarrassed me any less despite having done so four times I can remember during trips to other colonies. While I waited in line, two colony security officers talked about whatever adults consider important. Gossip by the sounds of it. But my ears perked up when I heard them mention Mrs. Kugla.
“How in the fuck did the Erratic not recognize her immediately? Like, the moment she entered the room. Really calls the value of the whole program into question if that can happen.” It pleased me somewhat to hear that.
The other ruffled his beard, staring thoughtfully out the window. “Breach in the tunnel. That’s what I figure. Everything else is locked up tight as a drum, but there’s miles of tunnel that doesn’t get inspected more often than once a month.”
The walls, floor and ceiling of the corridor were the same shade of grey. Reminded me of my classroom, although the ceiling and floor are a touch lighter there. Once I asked why people aren’t grey when everything else is, one of those questions you blurt out when you’re too young to have a sense of how things work, so all the adults laugh and gush about how cute it is. Even at that age I knew when I was being patronized.
“You can get all kinds of ideas from colors”, I recall Dad explaining. “That’s no good. You should know better than most what a burden unnecessary ideas are.” Whatever that meant. I don’t tell people I meet that I’m an Illogic. Because the first thing anybody says when they find out is that they don’t see you any differently. Then they proceed to behave completely differently around you from that point onward.
The sun was beginning to set. I shaded my eyes with my hand as I peered out the window from my place in line. The immense circular cluster of electric lights was dangerous to look at directly. Above and below I could see the long pair of rails mounted to the dome by which it travels overhead every day.
“Why does it move? Why not make it light all the time?” Another one of those naive questions, apparently. He’d told me that our bodies are designed for 24 hour days, and need darkness for sleep. I asked who designed them that way and he laughed. “The same fella who designed the colonies, I suppose. And the sun, and the tracks it moves on, and all the rest. That’s why we give thanks before we eat.”
There’s a limit to his patience for questions, though. “What’s outside the dome?” He’d become very grim and quiet for a while, perhaps contemplating how best to answer. All I got was “That’s one of those unnecessary ideas we talked about. Don’t ever let your mother catch you asking that. Now clear your place and go start on your homework.”
At last, my turn. I passed through a thick pair of metal doors, which clanged as they were shut behind me. A voice greeted me over intercom by name and ID number. A little off putting, but I suppose colony security knows everything.
“Blow into the tube on the far wall please.” There were outlines of handprints to either side of it as if I needed help figuring out how to stand against a wall. I wiped the tube as best I could, put it in my mouth and puffed my cheeks. Kept doing it until my face turned red. Finally I heard the “ding” and the woman’s voice instructed me to proceed into the next room.
I envisioned the cold concrete rooms, laid out end to end in a line separated by the metal doors. Like a rectilinear centipede. I understood the lack of color but at least adding carpets didn’t seem like it would bankrupt them.
The next room had a video monitor which flickered to life and at last gave me a face to put to the nondescript female voice which had ordered me through the process up to this point. Plain features, pointy nose, black hair down to her ears and a pair of horn rimmed glasses.
She instructed me to strip. I did so reluctantly, struggling to cover myself with one hand while putting my folded up shirt, pants and underwear into a cubby under the monitor. My shoes and socks next. I shuddered as my bare feet touched the floor. I’d anticipated it but it was still profoundly unpleasant.
“Just how many rooms are in this place” I muttered. The microphone built into the frame of the monitor must’ve picked it up. She chuckled. “Not far until the end. Don’t worry, I can’t see you clearly, they blur it a bit ever since that law was passed. The Erratics get much more of an eyefull than I do and they’re almost all boys. Really is like a maze in this place though, isn’t it. Rooms upon rooms, all together making up a building.”
I shrugged, said “I guess so” and awaited further instruction. But she kept going on about rooms. “Rooms upon rooms upon rooms. One building is made of many rooms. Then there are many buildings per colony. And many colonies…”
Her eyes widened. The edges of her mouth drew up into a twitching grin. The look of someone pretending to be happy at gunpoint. A maniacal, paranoid grin, like she was awaiting the punchline to a joke told by someone who meant to kill her. She started to laugh. Even her laughter sounded nervous and manic.
“Ahaha...haha….hahahahhaaHAHAHHAHAHA!! Oh it can’t be, can it!? It’s so simple! And here I thought it would be something grand and complicated so somebody like me without much education would be safe, but I aaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHEEEYYAI-YAE-YAEI-YEI-YAI-YIIIIIIIIII”
Her head began to lift up off of her shoulders on a shiny black helix of muscular flesh. The skin just ripped apart at the neck like tissue paper, the head slowly rotating as it ascended. The mouth hung open, shrieking almost musically until cockroaches began pouring out of it.
Her eyes looked just like Mrs. Kugla’s when it happened. Wide open, pupils dilated as though noticing something vast and incomprehensible for the first time. But which had always been there.
I heard gunfire and screaming through the monitor. Then it broke up into static. The emergency lights in the room came on and the familiar siren sounded. Naked, cold and afraid, I waited for the doors to open. Then, although the monitor still displayed only static, I heard men’s voices.
“Is it dead? Fuck me. They really went to town in here. Were any of the Erratics hurt?” A second deeper voice with a subtle drawl answered. “Not the most abrupt epiphany I’ve seen. Lead time of nearly ten seconds before the eruption followed. One type 2 Erratic was outside of the plexiglass enclosure when the sterilization team swept through, minor burns to the neck and shoulder. The others were inside when it happened, no damage. To their bodies, anyway.”
I struggled to follow most of it. A lot of the words were unfamiliar. “What is it? Drives me up the wall. Something they figure out all of a sudden. Reframes their understanding of everything so powerfully that it warps reality.
But what is it? Shut up, I know. It’s the one big idea you never wanna have. Curiosity killed the cat. Worse than killed, in this case. Still, if I forget to fight it I just get to thinking about it again.”
The voices drifted off as the two walked away from what I guessed must be the desk the woman I’d seen before was sitting at. I probed the edges of the room looking for a way out, shivering, until someone finally came for me.
“It’s outrageous!” Dad bellowed on the drive home. “What do they do in there all day that justifies their paychecks? If they can’t even protect themselves, how can they protect us?” In his fit, the car strayed a bit off the road. The vibration of the markers at the edge startled him into returning his attention to driving.
Mom turned in her seat and doted on me. “I’ll bet you would have caught it soon enough, sweetheart. If only those idiots had calculated your score right.” She still hasn’t really accepted it, or given up. I could see the symmetry in her face expressed as faint polygonal outlines. Something which happens subconsciously for others, never visualized. I blinked a few times to disrupt the effect.
I found out after I’d gotten dressed and ready for school the next day that there wouldn’t be any. Everyone who’d been in that classroom had the next three days off to recuperate. A gift horse I had no interest in inspecting the teeth of, as I whooped in excitement and tore out the front door before Mom could object.
The streets were uncommonly clear of traffic. In the distance I heard the faint echo of the emergency siren, and shuddered. The sun continued climbing overhead, with a couple more points of light towards the Eastern horizon. A cluster of stars some fool had forgotten to shut off before sunrise. Then the rain started.
According to one of Dad’s stories, it used to be that we’d all vote on when rain days would occur. But it took up too much time, there was too much contention between groups who wanted to schedule outdoor events on the same day, so eventually it was simply randomized. That made nobody happy, which I’m told is the sign of a successful compromise.
So I ducked into an open utility closet. What I thought was a closet, anyway. The door hung slightly open, inset in the side of an immense concrete stairwell up to the business district. Once my eyes adjusted I discovered a long corridor lined with wall mounted pipes of varying thickness.
I recalled some of the older kids claiming to have come down here to smoke. Rumors of a makeshift fort with some dirty magazines in it, but also that on occasion kids who came down here alone didn’t come back. I could see why just the appearance of the place might lead someone to make that up.
I could hear dripping, but didn’t see water. There was a constant gentle whooshing of air moving down the tunnel, carrying strange scents with it. The pipes would flex and rattle now and then as I explored, as if I were within some great beast. All concrete, unpainted of course as it’s already grey.
Nothing to write home about so far, but it beat sitting in class. I eventually reached a dead end. I don’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t that. Why build a corridor with nothing at the far end? That’s when I heard the whisper.
“Psst. Kid.” I looked around. Seeing nothing, I began walking back the way I came. “No, down here.” I took a second look around and this time noticed an eye peering through a wide crack along the bottom half of the wall. Between the pipes. Very easy to miss. I strongly considered making a break for it.
“You’re in Mrs. Kugla’s class, right? Or you were.” Just like that, he’d captured my interest. I knelt, peered back at the eye through the pipes and replied. “You’re one of those things, aren’t you.” I heard stifled chuckling. “I couldn’t very well be talking to you if I were, could I? I’ll bet you’re wondering how I knew which class you’re in.” In fact, I was.
“Used to work for security. It’s a misnomer now, nothing secure about it. That’s actually the worst place to be. All those Erratics. They can stare it right in the face and not realize. That’s just how their brains are put together. But if they talk to one of us, put the necessary ideas into our head, we put the pieces together on our own some time after that. You’ve seen what happens.”
I noticed as I listened that something was changing. The air felt charged somehow. My vision blurred slightly, and the world seemed to be rocking subtly beneath me. I at last identified the source of the dripping sound. Looking past the pipes, droplets of water were running up the walls and pooling on the ceiling before draining through a mess of thin cracks.
“It’s close. I know they’ll eventually find me here. It’s so close. So obvious, right on the tip of everybody’s tongue. There’ll be no containing it when they all realize.” I told him I was sure I had no idea what he was talking about. “Do you ever wear anything other than that uniform?”
I didn’t understand the question. It was the first time I’d considered the idea of alternate clothing and I said so. “And what do they teach you in school? The three Rs. Anything else? Do they have you invent your own words?”
More absolute nonsense. Invent a word? Every word already exists. He went on about how none of it was creative. All of it constrained our thinking to prevent realization.
I began to argue that I’d be missed if I didn’t return home. “No, please, I’m alone down here. Sealed myself in because I know it’s almost here. You’re not afraid of old Bill, are you?” I told him I was already breaking one of Dad’s rules by speaking to a stranger. “How can I be a stranger when you know my name?”
Before I left, he got in one last bit. “All of this around you. Nice comfortable homes. Well lit rooms. School, jobs, even the sun and stars. You take it for granted, like that’s just how it is, and happens by itself.
It doesn’t. It’s maintained by the constant expenditure of energy, to hold out anything different. If you saw what was outside the dome you’d understand.”
I left the bizarre man babbling to himself behind the crack in the wall and was soon back out on the sidewalk. The rain had finally subsided. I ran back home, in time to avoid a spanking but not quickly enough to avoid stern questions. Mom nonetheless made me a sandwich and a glass of milk.
“Mom, why are things like this?” She stopped in her tracks, halfway to the fridge. Then slowly turned and looked at me with a troubled expression before answering. “What do you mean, like this? What other way would they be?” I sensed I was close to a nerve, so took care to be precise.
“You know. The way things are. Everybody lives in houses. They wear clothing. Kids go to school. Grownups go to work. The sun moves overhead from one side to the other, and we sleep when it’s dark. How come it’s like that, and not some other way?” It startled me to notice she had tears in her eyes as she shook me by the shoulders.
“Who told you this? Was it that teacher? There’s no other way! Everything’s always been like this and always will be! Don’t you understand how important that is? What we sacrifice to keep it this way?” I didn’t know what to say. Her sudden panic mystified me. “Mom, you’re hurting me.”
She stopped, looked down at her grip on my arms, and relaxed it. “I’m...I’m sorry honey. Never mind. But I don’t want to hear any more about these ideas. You should be focusing on your schoolwork.” I agreed and promised to go up to my room and study once I finished the sandwich. This seemed to placate her. But then, on a whim, I blurted out another question.
“Mom, what’s outside the dome?” She stared, mouth slightly agape. Then took a seat next to me. “This is what I was afraid of. I suppose I’ve put off this talk for too long already. I kept leaning on your father to do it but he doesn’t see any sense in putting ‘unnecessary ideas’ into your head.” I only felt more confused.
She took an orange from a bowl and placed it on the counter. “We live on something shaped like this.” I laughed and shook my head, turning the bowl upside down and insisting the dome was more like the bowl than the orange. “I don’t mean the dome. Outside of it, and all the other colonies, we live on the surface of something round like this orange, but called a planet.”
I studied her face. She appeared dead serious. “Is there just one? Or are there other planets?” She sighed as I said it, as if anticipating the question. “Smart boy. Yes, there are more planets. They all orbit around the sun. The real one.” I glanced out through the window, but she clarified that she meant something round like the orange and vastly larger.
“The planet we’re on travels in a circle around the sun, with several others at varying distances.” My eyes lit up as I recalled some relevant concept from school. “Like an atom!”
She flashed a panicked look, but swiftly regained composure. “Y..yes...like an atom, with the orbiting electrons. That's really all there is to it. You can stop now, right?” In fact I couldn't. It felt addictively satisfying to make these connections, though I couldn’t put my finger on why.
“There must be more suns, right? If there’s more than one planet.” She choked up a bit. The look of fear in her eyes intensified. But I couldn’t stop now. The implications were fascinating.
“So just like there are many atoms in a cell, and there are many cells in a person….and there are many people in a colony, and many colonies on this planet, and many planets orbiting the sun, and-”
She immediately started screaming. “STOP! STOP IT!” I reached out to reassure her nothing was wrong but it was useless. “WHY CAN’T YOU JUST BE HAPPY WITH WHAT YOU HAVE? WHAT’S SO WRONG WITH THE LIFE YOUR FATHER AND I BUILT YOU THAT YOU HAVE TO RELENTLESSLY PICK AT EVERY LITTLE THING?” I stared silently, completely at a loss for words.
What I feared never came. She calmed down in stages, with the help of a small vial of pills she produced from the pocket of her blouse. I’d seen it before on just a few occasions and knew it meant I’d crossed a line and would be punished. When Dad got home, I was. The rest of the three day break was spent in my room, studying.
All the while I heard them fighting downstairs. Shouting incoherently at one another as the guilt burned in me. I knew I caused all of it, I just couldn’t work out how. The textbook was devoted to biology, the chapter I was reading all about the various stages of foetal development. From a single fertilized egg you can’t even see, all the way to a complete newborn baby.
It brought to mind the chapters we’d just finished. How there came to be people in the colonies. With people coming from apes, who came from smaller simpler mammals, who came from reptiles, who came from amphibians, who came from fish and so on back to a single celled creature. Made sense that the two processes would be so similar. But the book contained no mention of the parallels. Seemed like a good topic for my report, so I began writing.
I’d finished less than a page when I was interrupted by what sounded like a distant siren. I glanced outside, noticing two plumes of thick black smoke several blocks away. Then the ground rumbled beneath me. I heard Mom and Dad stop arguing. Then another, deeper rumbling. A bright fireball engulfed one of the security buildings on the far side of the dome.
Then the sun fell. I couldn’t believe it even as it happened. Another explosion rocked the dome, and the sun itself came loose, plummeting to the ground. An eruption of flame, sparks and black smoke billowed up from where it landed, crushing a neighborhood less than a mile from mine.
For a few seconds it was dark, then emergency lighting activated bit by bit until the entire dome was dimly lit around the edge, stars and streetlights were turned on, and I heard the siren again. This time from downstairs. I heard the thunder of frantic footsteps, then Dad burst into my room whispering instructions.
Minutes later we piled into the car, having packed a change of clothing, canned food and first aid kits into the luggage we normally only use for vacations. I was frightened, and said so. “You can be frightened once we’ve made it to the shelter” Dad whispered, as much of a comfort as ever. Mom wept softly. I grabbed a sheet of crumpled paper from my bag and handed it to her.
After she wiped her eyes, under the dim overhead light, she began reading the page. What little I’d finished of my report, now with her makeup smeared across it. Our car was soon joined by a dozen others. Then hundreds. All with the same destination. “For fuck’s sake, we’d get there faster by walking!”
Another explosion, this time so close that I could see Mom and Dad in the front seats silhouetted against the light from it. Some of the rim lights began to flicker, and overhead I could see a few clusters of stars go dark. Then, shrill screaming from a few cars behind us.
I peered over the back seat and, intermittently illuminated by the failing emergency lights, I saw an old man in the passenger seat of a station wagon coming apart. His head hatched like an egg, a writhing mess of malformed spider-like limbs emerging from it and clawing at the windows. Two children in the seat behind him struggled to open the doors while screaming, but child safety locks kept them inside.
A screaming woman clutching a baby to her chest ran past us just outside the window. Then a man and two children. The trickle became a torrent as more and more motorists abandoned their cars. As we did the same, I spotted something visually confusing advancing on the pileup from a block or so away. A surging wall of slick black sludge, throwing out pseudopods of all shapes, grasping at the ground to pull itself ever forward.
I turned away, and ran. No sense in looking a second time. I shouldn’t have looked to begin with. Mom and Dad caught up with me and together we navigated the flickering emergency signs directing the panicked mob towards the nearest shelter. Then suddenly Mom started laughing. When I looked, she was still reading that sheet.
She searched her pockets for the vial of pills, face quickly contorting. Finding them, she fumbled, and the vial shattered against the sidewalk. Dad didn’t let me watch. Gripped my shoulder with one hand, put the other over my eyes and dragged me away. I shouted at him in confusion. Couldn’t we still help? Something could still be done.
I teared up when I heard the shrieking start. It receded into the distance and at last Dad took his hand away from my eyes. “No boy should have to see his mother go that way.” I discovered he was crying too, though his expression appeared stern and resolute. We arrived at the concrete archway with the inset metal hatch. A guard to one side examined an ID Dad produced, then admitted us.
I looked behind one last time, realizing I’d never see my home town again. Black sticky fibers spider-webbed up one side of the dome, gradually engulfing the remaining lights. Then the hatch shut, and we stood briefly in darkness. When the lights came on I discovered the shelter to be surprisingly modest. No more than a hundred could fit.
Everyone flinched when the pounding began. Muffled cries to open the hatch, from the ones who weren’t fast enough. Dad finally let himself break down. Even after everything I’d seen, this was the strangest. He’d not cried in front of me since grandpa’s funeral. A few of the other refugees near us seemed uncomfortable, but understanding. I recognized the woman who ran past the car earlier, but saw no baby with her.
Another rumbling, particles of dust showered us from the ceiling. Row after row of metal shelving packed with canned food, jugs of water, rolled up blankets and so forth broke up the room a bit like book shelves in a small library. They didn’t look load bearing, and I worried whether the shelter might collapse if a blast occurred too close.
A small brown spider hung tight on his web, stretching between two supports of the shelving unit nearest me. The jug on the shelf above must leak a bit as there were tiny droplets of water all over the web.
Perhaps simply to distract myself I leaned in for a closer look and discovered in each water droplet I could see a reflection of the entire web including the other droplets, each of which contained a further reflection of the entire web includiiiiiiiaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH