The Living Word
"Vaccination is not the same as a cure. It is only effective if done prior to infection, and really, your immune system does most of the work.
It entails the injection of dead viral mass into the bloodstream, so your immune system can learn its anatomy. This way, it can recognize intact, active viruses of that species when it first encounters them."
I'd been dreaming of the day that we reached the inoculation center. I always imagined the technician doing it would be beautiful. She still was to me, the plain, rail thin brunette. Hunger is the best appetizer. Three years of running, hiding, scavenging for food and supplies was finally at an end and the relief was indescribable.
By the time mankind discovered the existence of the contagion, the world was nearly overrun. It was not the shambling, decomposing undeath we'd been led to expect by movies.
The afflicted looked outwardly unchanged, and behaved very much like their old selves with the subtle difference that spreading the contagion subconsciously obsessed them.
At every opportunity they would isolate friends, co-workers and family members, and attempt to pass it to them. Because of our limited definition of what a living being can be, we didn't recognize it for what it was until centuries after the outbreak.
"What we do here is to vaccinate you against the replicator by laying bare its anatomy, that you might fully understand what it is and how it works. By "how it works", I mean the mechanisms by which it attracts hosts, compels them to spread it, and prevents most conventional attempts to remove it.
The Russians had quite a different approach. Mass culling. The drop of bleach in the petri dish. But if you don't wipe it out completely it only comes back stronger, just as biological pathogens do if antibiotics are abused."
The display behind her showed a simulation with red dots propagating exponentially from various points of introduction across the European landmass. Then most of them vanished, only to re-colonize more aggressively than before.
"The establishment of safe zones, armored arcologies for the immunized, was met with little resistance at first. It was pitched as insurance against climate change.
Those in power consisted at that time almost entirely of the infected. No plan that was openly intended to deprive the replicator of hosts would've made it past them.
This is also why it was impossible to simply broadcast the vaccination info. There was always someone, usually many infected individuals in positions to censor that information before it reached the masses.
They would react with defensive anger, reject the submission, downvote it, or whatever without even consciously realizing that they did so at the behest of the thing in their brain, pulling their strings.
Thus, quietly and subtly, the vaccine was suppressed. Only now that these pockets of immunity exist is it possible to distribute the vaccine unimpeded.
But do not imagine that we are safe! As the number of vaccinated grows, and the number of infected dwindles, they’ve become increasingly desperate and aggressive."
I remembered the seemingly endless nights, shuddering at every sound however faint. Most of the time it was a stray dog, or a distant car alarm. I did not want to be caught offguard if ever it was one of the infected.
Every safe house was a game of roulette. It was not unknown for the infected to build their own fake safehouses. They retained their full intelligence, it was all just redirected to the purpose of spreading the contagion. They were astonishingly clever in the variety of their tactics.
"The suffering and uneducated are ideal growth substrate for this thing. Children and the psychologically vulnerable in particular are extremely tempting hosts. Much as they are to any conventional plague.
The children do not yet have a developed immune system. Those stricken by poverty, in prison or otherwise suffering have a greatly weakened immune response.
For this reason, the infected set up institutions where children would be sent for implantation, and concerted efforts were made to target prisoners, the homeless, to turn public schools into implantation centers, and so on."
I glanced at the others around me. What were their stories? I could hardly imagine what they went through to get here. There were things I'd done to survive that I could never imagine telling anyone. A girl at the end of the row made eye contact.
Something in her gaze told me she was wondering the same thing I was, but about me. The terror of discovering what you are surrounded by, that the enemy has not only won but that it won centuries ago and the very culture you live in is saturated by it can drive a man to madness.
"The vaccine was developed by studying how the replicator evolved. Where biological replicators evolve by natural selection, information based replicators are modified by us.
Sometimes consciously, as those emotionally invested in the replicator seek to reinforce it, sometimes unconsciously as it branches into different versions and the more compelling and defensible of the two competes more effectively for hosts.
It stood to reason that if genetic engineering is possible, so it is possible to engineer information in such a way as to disarm and remove these things. An antivirus. Those efforts are still underway, but until they yield fruit, we are focused on vaccinating as-yet uninfected refugees from the outer lands."
The outer lands are the remains of cities, suburbs and so on that had been largely abandoned and now were in various states of decay. The only lights after sundown came from safehouses, both legitimate and the decoys set up by the infected. I remembered the first and last time I'd fallen for that.
They looked welcoming enough but there was a troubling quality to their smiles. Vacant, superficial. They fed me, offered to take my coat and backpack, but then began to ask me strange questions.
What would happen to me if I died today? Did I believe I was a good person? As they did so they closed in around me. One tried to hug me. I had to kill six in order to escape. The rest chased me for miles, pleading with me to hear them out.
In their mind it was absolutely crucial to infect me. They believed they were doing it for my own good. The replicator leveraged their natural altruism to compel them to spread it.
Everything about it compels the host to spread it, to desperately fear and suppress doubt, and to identify and destroy any uninfected person who knows what it is and seeks to remove it. Nineteen centuries of evolution had rendered it extremely efficient at this.
"You've all come a long way. I cannot pretend to know what you've endured to get here. Without further delay, let the inoculation begin."
The lights dimmed. A roll-down projector display lowered into place behind her. It displayed pictures of men, some of whom I recognized as cranks and loonies that cropped up from time to time in the media before war broke out and the shelters were established.
"It begins with a man, like any of these. Typically a charismatic speaker, that's the initial draw. He makes some remarkable claim about an imminent disaster, to catch peoples' attention and to motivate them with urgency to listen to what he has to say. Usually it's the end of the world or something."
She fiddled with the remote, and the slide changed. It now depicted a pyramidic hierarchy, with one man at the top and many below. "He will claim that he is the only one who can save you from this catastrophe. But that you must sell your belongings. This is to render you financially dependent on the group so that you cannot leave it if you begin to experience doubts."
Again, the slide changed. It now depicted a pair of attractive wide eyed twentysomethings sitting behind a table with strange devices of some sort on it, and a sign reading "free personality test!"
"He will also want you to cut off any family members who try to stop you from joining his group. Family constitutes the biggest barrier to recruitment, and is the most likely to try and extract you from it. He will say that he is your only father, that those who leave their jobs and families to follow him will be richly rewarded."
The next slide depicted a man on a donkey. He dangled a carrot in front of the animal, while whipping it's behind with a stick. "To motivate recruits to spread the information content of the virus to new hosts, he is likely to promise some sort of unverifiable reward if you are steadfast in your belief, and spread it to others.
Usually takes the form of a paradise after death where you are reunited with deceased loved ones, and whatever else you desire most. Of course dead men tell no tales, so the claim cannot be falsified.
Likewise, to deter you from ever leaving the group he will claim that doing so earns you a horrible, but also unverifiable punishment. Usually whatever you're most afraid of. Fire, monsters, being trapped underground. Also after you die, of course.
This will make you afraid to seriously enterain doubts. You will perceive doubts as toxic. Tricks intended to deprive you of being with your deceased loved ones in an eternal paradise."
The slide changed again. Some sort of wicked looking little horned satyr with a shovel was burying what looked to be a fossilized ammonite. "That brings us to the invisible trickster. This is a character invented to explain away contrary evidence. This leverages conspiratorial thinking to undermine doubt.
For example, how can you trust any evidence you might be shown which conflicts with the viral material? You were already warned that the invisible trickster would try such a ruse on you!
This is a sort of front-loaded countermeasure, to bias you against anything you might see, hear or read that would otherwise undermine belief."
The pieces began falling into place. Everything about it was designed to make it spread as widely as possible, to persist for as long as possible and to fight removal attempts. The last slide was of a pre-war building I recognized as an implantation center, with some strange diorama in front of it.
A woman and man knelt before a crib, to either side of it. The crib was glowing, electrically illuminated from within. They were surrounded by animals. Other inset photographs showed bizarre paintings of a man with feminine features, clothed in a bathrobe or white sheet with a bright light behind his head. He held a stylized heart, wrapped in thorns, also glowing.
"Imagine what something like this could turn into, if it kept spreading long enough. It would endeavor to refocus as much of the host culture as possible onto itself. Books, movies, holidays, videogames, hospitals, schools, you name it.
It would embed itself as irreversibly as possible into the fabric of civilization, so that if ever it were discovered, removing it would effectively destroy civilization.
Like an inoperable tumor. By that time it would be absolutely everywhere, integrated into every aspect of life. Even the immune would be convinced of its necessity for keeping society running, and would feel compelled to defend it."
It rang true enough. I began recognizing it as a description of the world before the war. "If you were unwisely open about your immunity you would be targeted. Softly at first. They might tell you that you simply haven't read enough of their materials.
That nineteen centuries of arguments in defense of it cannot all be wrong. That if the brightest minds of history, generation after generation, devoted themselves to propagating it, there must be some truth to it.
They are likely to insist that you were simply miseducated in the wrong variant of the virus. You see, the different species of it compete for hosts. Some more aggressively than others. But they all see it as authoritative and credible.
It feels absolutely real to them because they are surrounded by it from birth. It is woven into their culture. It is implanted in them from a very young age by their parents and other trusted figures. This makes removal exceedingly difficult, exactly as it's intended to."
Suddenly, I felt a tremor. The lights flickered. The slim brunette at the front put a finger to her ear and spoke frantically into what must've been a concealed radio.
"Stay calm everyone. There's been a detonation of some kind. I'm receiving reports of an attempt to penetrate the outer perimeter." The girl I'd locked eyes with earlier began to scream. Another opposite me curled up into a ball and rocked in place.
"There are several lines of defense. They cannot possibly-" She was cut off by banging on the double doors. Some quick thinking fellow had barricaded them while the rest of us were panicking.
"Help me, you fools! They'll try the other doors next!" We managed to barricade them, but a moment too late. One of the infected wedged its foot in the door. And then as much of its face as it could force through the gap.
"Hello sir!" it shouted. "Do you have a moment to speak about-" A tall muscular guard launched himself at the door. It shut, crushing the infected's head in a shower of gore. "Thanks, it nearly got me."
He was already across the room holding the other door shut as an older man and two women lugged welding equiptment to it. Once set up, the man flipped a tinted visor down over his eyes and began welding the door shut.
It was futile. We'd forgotten the skylights. The sound of glass splintering and a shower of broken shards were followed by a torrent of the infected, throwing themselves down through it and landing in a pile. The inoculation tech was now distributing shotguns and canisters of gasoline.
"Everyone with a shotgun, you're group A! Everyone with a gas can, you're group B! Group A shoots, group B piles up the bodies and burns them. Try to develop a rhythm. You cannot change their mind! But you can disrupt it with fast bits of metal!"
With that she slung a bandolier of shells over one shoulder and started shooting. One of the infected threw itself at her."Jesus has a plan for your life! Jesus has a plan for your life! Jesus has a plan for your li-"
The infected's head exploded in a cloud of humid red mist, as bits of brain matter and skull fragments rained down around him. The body slumped to the floor. A group B member began dragging it to a pile forming in the corner.
I was paralyzed. I'd never seen so many at once, and we were trapped like rats as they poured in through the broken skylights. Too many, too fast.
"Did you know that the banana is perfectly designed to be held by the human hand? And its color changes to indica-" a hail of shotgun blasts tore it apart, intestines spilling out of its midsection as it collapsed in a heap.
"What are you doing? Shoot!" the tech shouted at me. I returned to my senses just as one of the infected threw itself at me. It wore that demented, vacant grin I remembered from the decoy safe house.
"Carbon dating is not reliable beyond a few thousand years!" it shrieked. "The contents of Genesis are really an elaborate metaphor for what science has only now discovered about our origins! Not the creation stories of other religions though, those are simply wrong!"
The shotgun was pinned down under the weight of the babbling drone on top of me. Contrary to what I'd been told, I tried to deliver the antivirus.
"You're in a cult!" I shouted at it. "A very old, successful doomsday cult that outlived the death of its founder and the timeframe of its alleged doomsday event!
It just kept expanding from there, generation after generation! It works exactly like a chain letter, multi-level marketing or a virus! Isn't this obvious to you? People were pulling this same routine well before Jesus and still do it today!
David Koresh? Jim Jones? Harold Camping? I'm sure you recognize this is how Mormonism, Scientology and Islam got started. Yours isn't any different!"
A sudden placid look of recognition came over it. It then scowled at me. "You're implying I'm in a cult? Impossible! Cults are whatever diverges from scripture. That's very offensive, you know." I struggled to shift his weight so I could topple him, but continued the distraction.
"Doesn't that seem like a bit of a self-serving definition to you?" I asked. Furious, he began pummeling me. I grabbed one of his forearms and flipped him to one side. With the shotgun free, I scrambled to my feet and discharged it into him over and over until he stopped moving.
My breathing was erratic and my heart felt like it would explode from my chest. The room was now eerily silent. As I looked around, I realized we'd won. But not without major losses. Only three of us were still standing.
The girl I'd hoped to speak with after the inoculation lay dead in a pool of blood. I found out one of the infected pinned her down and completed implantation near the end. She'd begun babbling about nephilim, prophecies and sola scriptura. I grieved, but also was glad I wasn't the one who had to put her down.
"I don't get it" one of the other survivors muttered as he helped me pile up the last of the bodies and set them ablaze."Multiple concentric rings of sensors, yet no alarms went off. And how did they get roof access?"
I shrugged. We made small talk and I found out he'd also survived a close call with a decoy safe house. "They really get every last detail right, it's uncanny. Imagine if they were to fake an entire safe zone! Lure us all to one place, then-..."
We both stopped in our tracks, and my blood ran cold. I looked up, searching the room for the inoculation tech. I spotted her in a corner reloading her shotgun, then bringing it to bear on us. The last thing I saw was the small silver star and crescent pendant dangling from her neck.