The door creaked open.
Anna hoisted Jackson onto her hip and stepped into the house. Everything was as they left it. Clothes were flung left and right; toys scattered on the floor. There was even still sticky, coalesced pancake batter sitting in a mixing bowl by the stove.
Thank God. Mom didn’t leave the stove on.
Someone had been in the house. She could tell that much. Dirty footprints scattered the carpet. A few of the dining chairs were turned over. Half the cookies were gone.
The infected already searched the house and found it empty, as she thought.
Now, it’d be the last place they’d look.
She swung open the fridge. Thankfully, there was still some food left. She pulled out a half-eaten turkey sandwich with wilted lettuce and soggy bread and took a bite.
Mmm. Never had anything that tasted so good.
She filled Jackson’s sippy cup with water, and he greedily grabbed it. She peeled the top off a plastic container, cutting the broccoli inside it into small pieces and haphazardly scattering it onto the high chair tray.
“Come on sweetie, let’s eat.”
She lifted him into the seat. He grabbed at the broccoli, then winced as soon as he tasted it.
“Sorry, buddy. It’s not that fresh.”
Anna didn’t come back for the food, though.
After Jackson was asleep for the night, she walked into the master bedroom. The covers sat in a tangled heap upon the bed. Clothes were scattered across the floor. She picked up one of Luke’s shirts, inhaling his scent.
I’m coming for you.
Anna opened the top drawer of the dresser, reaching her hand way in and feeling around.
Aha! It’s still here.
In her hand rested a small wooden box. Her fingers lingered on the clasp.
Once you take it, there’s no going back. You’ll be one of them.
“But there’s no other way,” she whispered to herself. “I can’t get past the barricades or the police without help. I can’t rescue them without it.”
She turned to the rifle, sitting in the cabinet across the room.
Maybe shoot them up instead? No, I’m outnumbered. What, 50 police officers to 1 Anna? Fucking terrible odds. Even with my aim, I’ll lose.
She took a deep breath.
I have to take the pill. It’s the only way.
Anna lifted the lid of the box.
The pill was gone.
Just the class ring was there – along with a wriggling, red worm.
“What the fuck?”
The voice echoed and bounded around the room. Luke whipped around, trying to locate the source.
“What, you don’t remember me?”
Luke’s blood ran cold.
The figure stepped out of the shadows. He passed the ball, stopping just a few feet from Luke.
It was Kevin.
His eyes glanced over Luke and he grinned, his teeth shining yellow in the light. “Luke! The return of the Prodigal Son.”
“Quit being dramatic, Kevin,” Myra said, rolling her eyes disdainfully.
“Oh, this is worth being dramatic for! Luke is the smartest man in the whole company. I’ve been waiting for him to return to me for months.”
“But this whole thing only started two weeks ago,” Myra said.
“I meant metaphorically!” Kevin snapped. “Myra, you may leave us. Luke, follow me.”
Luke followed him across the smooth, dark floor. They stopped within a few feet of the ball. It was even more disgusting up close, with myriads of wriggling, oozing, blood-red worms. They smelled foul – like a mix of vomit and rotting food.
“This is the answer to all of our problems. Hunger, cancer, even poverty.”
“Uh, what?” Luke stared up at the wriggling mass, his stomach turning so badly he could barely focus on Kevin’s words.
“You’re familiar with the wondrous miracle that’s earthworms, are you not?” He gazed at the sphere lovingly, as if staring into the face of his newborn son. “Earth’s great recyclers. Turning food, garbage, and even our dead bodies into organic material that can be used anew.”
“Yes. Those worms are great,” Luke said, feeling the bile rise in his throat.
“But not great enough. Those worms, they don’t recycle our intellect. Sure, they turn our bodies back into soil, but our intellect is burned up into dust. Except for the books and academic contributions we’ve left behind, of course.”
One of the worms near the top wriggled free and fell onto the floor. Luke jumped back; Kevin crouched and picked it up tenderly.
“What does this have to do with anything?” Luke asked.
“The little gray pills aren’t pills at all.” He delicately placed the worm back on the sphere with its comrades. “They’re worm eggs. Or, more accurately, worm cocoons. When someone ingests the pill, the cocoon hatches – or stays dormant for a while, like in your case.”
“And then what happens?” Luke asked, not sure if his stomach could handle it.
“It burrows up into your brain. The postcentral gyrus, to be exact. It connects you to thousands of other people. You learn what they learn, you know what they know. And when someone dies, their knowledge is recycled back into the hivemind.”
Luke felt dizzy. He collapsed on a nearby chair, fighting off the darkness closing in on his vision.
With a flicker of hope, he asked: “My daughter, Amelia, died while she was infected. If her knowledge is recycled, does that mean I can –”
“No. If you want to talk to her, you’ll still need a good old Ouija board,” he said, with a derisive laugh. “The dead stay dead. This isn’t some magic.”
Luke glanced at the ball of worms, his hope extinguished like a flame.
“Of course, the hivemind isn’t perfect. It took on the most traits from the two people who took the gray pill first. They happened to be, well… not so perfect.” Kevin’s expression, which had been so triumphant, finally faltered.
“What do you mean?”
“I couldn’t exactly experiment with all of this on normal people. I mean, everyone notices when pretty, rich, successful people start acting funny, right?” He laughed, bitterly. “The first person who took Earl Grey was a psychic. Not a real fortune teller, but an incredibly perceptive person who made a living off reading people.”
“So that explains the enhanced perception.”
“Exactly.” Kevin sighed, heavily. “The second person to take it was an ex-convict. A murderer. He kind of spoiled the whole pot. I never intended for us to murder anyone.”
“You didn’t intend to murder ‘the chaff’?” Luke said, a scornful laugh escaping him.
“No. I mean, we don’t want some idiot dumbing down the whole thing, that’s true. But we weren’t going to murder them. We would have disinfected them and sent them away.”
Kevin sighed, taking a seat next to Luke. Luke kept his eyes glued to the floor. It was coated in a thin film of slime – probably from months of worms falling onto it.
“So, why are you telling me all of this?” Luke said. He’s going to kill me, he thought. You don’t just tell someone your whole evil plan, all of your secrets, and then let them free to tell everyone else.
“Quite the contrary. I want you to be my right-hand-man, Luke. I want you to help me introduce this to the whole country, then the whole world!”
It sounds crazy.
But his brain was suddenly flooded with complacency.
Go along with it. Go along with it, and maybe you’ll eventually see Anna again.
Luke didn’t know if the mind control was finally kicking in, or something else – but he didn’t have long to ponder it.
“Kevin!” Myra’s voice, chopped with static, crackled through the radio clipped to his belt. “Kevin, do you hear me!?” Her tone was panicked. Kevin held up a finger up to Luke, turning away.
“Yes, I’m here. What is it?”
“Someone’s set the place on fire! We’re trying to evacuate everyone but, but the doors are locked shut. The place is filling with smoke and, it’s getting so incredibly hot...”
Her voice cut off, followed immediately by a shrill scream.
“Myra? Myra, what’s going on!?”
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Kevin said. He stared up at the worms, panic flickering across his face. “I’ve got to get them out of here. Quick, Luke, help me!”
“Of course I’ll help you.”
Luke smiled at Kevin. His eyes flashed red, but Kevin was too transfixed on the worms to notice.