When Samantha called me for the first time in eight years, it was surprising for two reasons. The first is that roughly 90% of the calls I receive these days are from debt collectors after me to pay down my student loans. The other being that we parted on pretty ugly terms, most of that was my fault and I honestly never expected to hear from her again.
I scolded myself afterwards for being so eager. Fell out of bed, tangled up in the sheets trying to get my hands on the phone, then tapped the green icon and breathlessly answered. It’s been eight years, I shouldn’t give a shit. She should be like any other person to me.
“Jack? You sound so different. But then, it’s been a while hasn’t it. I’ve been wondering what’s happening in your life.” I struggled to sound composed but nonetheless stammered a little bit as I searched for words. “Y-yeah Sam, it’s...you sound different too. It’s nice to hear from you though. You must’ve Googled me, right?” She said that she had, and congratulated me on the trip to Africa I’d taken in my first year interning for the local paper.
“That must’ve been so fulfilling. If you don’t mind me asking, what are they paying you?” I assumed she knew it was unpaid if she’d bothered to ask, so I didn’t sugar coat it. “Wow, that sucks. But that’s the economy, right? Plenty of people are working for free just to get their foot in the door. Then they let you go right before they’d have to hire you and take on new interns.” Technically the law prevents that, but I was aware of loopholes.
“You know, I might be able to help. I’m working for this promising new tech startup, it’s right up your alley. There’s plenty of opportunities for someone like you, maybe we could meet for coffee and I’ll tell you about it?” Sounded just similar enough to a date that my heart skipped a beat. Reflexively, I blurted out yes. She supplied the day and time, which I dutifully recorded in my calendar app after she’d hung up.
Long after the call ended, my heart was still racing. I’d gone through hell after the breakup. I think only because I was dumped. Something about rejection makes you cling to that person, even if they were nothing special to begin with. I’d seen a local therapist about it for three years before I felt put together enough to stop. Well, not a real therapist. Psych students in training. That’s why it’s free.
Clarity began returning to me, and I wondered if I hadn’t made a mistake. Seeing her in person would only rekindle feelings I’d spent most of a decade trying to extinguish. The therapist, insofar as it was right to use that word, urged me to cut off all contact for my own good. That seemed logical at the time. But then, doesn’t absence make the heart grow fonder? They can’t both be true.
It was a long, excruciating road to recovery. By recovery I mean reaching a point where I was borderline functional. I’d built so much of my identity around Samantha that she was a sort of load bearing pillar. With that removed, the rest collapsed in a heap of flaming wreckage. Years one through three were just the panicked wanderings of a lost child. Years four through six were a frankensteinian process of patching together whatever pieces I could salvage and trying to rebuild something resembling who I’d been before.
Not a lot of meat to it. Mostly skeletal scaffolding, duct tape and staples. The smallest impact would bring it tumbling down, but for the time being it worked well enough that I was finally holding down a job again. If you call unpaid labor a job. With most of my friends flipping burgers or waiting tables, doing something related to journalism elevated me considerably in their view. All smoke and mirrors though. At the end of the day, they’ve got an income. I’ve got an IOU.
From that perspective, Sam’s mystery job offer sounded tantalizing. I couldn’t bring myself to care what exactly it was about so long as I’d be working with her. That meant frequent time together, which in turn meant a chance to patch things up. My mind telling me “that’s childish fantasy you should throw in the fire before it hurts you” while my heart says “don’t be afraid to bet it all on a long shot, if the prize is everything you’ve ever wanted.”
I listened to my heart. I want to say it’s a poor understanding of probability and defective pattern recognition. Probably why I buy lottery tickets, come to think of it. I’ve been with a string of girls since the breakup and one after the other I drove them away. Self-sabotage, my therapist told me. My own experience of it was something like the emotional equivalent of when your body rejects a donor organ. My anti-rejection drug is alcohol. Works great, problem is that I eventually sober up.
That’s not a healthy way to live, but it’s a lot healthier than the alternative. Which, for several years, was a long drop off a nearby bridge. Popular spot for jumpers as there’s a road below to smash your head on and a picturesque view for reflecting on your life before you do it. The city put up fences as a deterrent but people just climb ‘em. So they put in some free phones which connect you directly to the suicide hotline.
Never bothered using it. I knew the spiel. “Suicide is the ultimate act of selfishness”, because your own suffering ends but you cause everyone who knows you to suffer afterward. There’s two sides to it, though. I could understand if someone were suicidal over some transient problem. They might have a point then. But if not, then isn’t it selfish to demand that somebody prolong their suffering by multiple decades because you’re scared of death?
I drove past the bridge on my way to the coffee shop and recalled the time I’d spent all night there, deliberating over whether to jump. Some rando intuited what I was there for and took it upon himself to talk me out of it. He said his piece, I said mine, then we watched the sun rise together. I didn’t wind up doing it. He got to leave feeling good about himself. But my life remained unchanged. What did he save me from, except relief?
The coffee shop was a national chain that people whose identity centers around contrarianism like to snub their noses at. Certainly the coffee is nothing special but there’s something to be said for being able to reliably get the same product, clean and quickly, anywhere on the planet. Samantha sat in a booth waiting for me. She had on a dress I recognized, and a neon yellow and blue windbreaker that I didn’t. Down one sleeve, it said “E-hance your life!” Sheepishly, I took a seat opposite her and prepared to break the ice. That’s when I first noticed the necklace.
“What’s that around your neck?” She seemed delighted by the question. “Sharp eye. This is the product! I could tell you about it, or you could just try it out yourself. I brought one that should fit you.” She withdrew it from her purse and slid it across the table to me. I objected that I’d not yet so much as ordered a drink.
“Oh, of course. I had one before you got here but I could go for another.” I offered to pay, and had her tell me what she wanted. It turned out to be incredibly specific. I gave up on getting it completely right halfway through the description. You get points towards free food or beverages if you order drinks with their special card here and I’ve always had an addictive personality. It’s why I stay away from gambling and freemium games. Didn’t manage to avoid drinking, but you can’t win ‘em all.
When I returned with our drinks she had a blue and yellow binder out, splayed open across the table with various perplexing graphs and diagrams. “I figured you’d have questions about how we operate, what the pay and hours are like and so on” she explained. It actually hadn’t occurred to me. I was ready to take the job just to work with Sam. But of course I couldn’t say that, so I feigned interest.
“So Jack, here’s the deal. Todd is my manager, so to speak. I started working for him three weeks ago. Jill, a friend of mine, also works for him. He works for Dennis, who has a lot more people working for him than either Todd or myself. So far! I hope to narrow that gap today.” She flashed a grin at me. I just sat pensively, staring at the nonsensical pie charts and spreadsheets in front of me. She continued.
“The great thing about this is that everybody can be a manager. You have someone who you report your sales to, and they take a cut of your earnings, but there are also people who work under you. They report to you and you get a cut of whatever they earn. So the more people you share this opportunity with, the more your profits stack up!”
She seemed deliriously excited now. I didn’t know how to break it to her. I seriously considered going all-in despite what I suspected, just because it was a chance to spend time with Sam. But that same lingering love also forced me to speak my mind about what she was involved in. “Sam, this is a pyramid scheme.” She spit out some coffee and laughed in my face.
“Todd told me you’d say that! Those exact words, because of your high Krion level. Sometimes I think he’s psychic. I can see why you’d think that, but no, this is a new and dynamic business model called network marketing. You see, it’s all about who you know, like in any other business. Forming connections, like the connection from Todd to myself and Jill, or between you and I.”
I cringed when she said it. How I wanted such a connection to exist. But I couldn’t leave it alone. “Does Todd ever pay you any of his earnings?” She blinked at me, and said no. “So the flow of money is one way. Always from the recruit, up to the person who recruited them. Then from that person up to whoever recruited them.” She frowned, flipped through the binder and found a diagram of a web-like structure. “See? A network”.
It certainly was possible to draw it that way. But the structure was the same. “Sam, let me guess. There are meetings you go to every so often where they give you a pep talk, you buy more of the product from them, and they coach you with counter-arguments for when people like me tell you it’s a scam.” Her eyes widened, and her voice grew irate.
“Do you really think I’m so stupid I’d fall for something like that? Is that what you think of me? Now I remember why I left you. Look, I’m doing you a favor by introducing you to this opportunity”, she said. “If you’re too narrow minded to recognize it, then go back to your life as a failure.” It knocked the wind out of me. I considered storming out. But even if at the end of the day she hated my guts, I felt like it would be a small price to pay if I could spare her the misery and financial ruin she was headed for.
“Sam, I’m only saying this because some part of me still cares for you. If you won’t take it from me, search the company name online. Or the name of the CEO. Even if they call it something else, structurally, it’s obviously a pyramid scheme. If you don’t get out of it now you’re going to regret it before long.” She looked infuriated, but after a few deep breaths, replied: “Look, just try the product. If it doesn’t blow you away, then I’m wrong, and it’s all a scam.” She nudged the necklace closer to me.
I agreed to give it a shot, pocketed the necklace and we parted more or less amicably. I drove home in a fog of confusion and anxiety. Maybe I’d gone in with unrealistic expectations. But this was by far a worse outcome than I could’ve imagined. When I got home, I searched “E-hance”. Every search result was in some way affiliated with the company. I could find nothing negative about it. Even the Wikipedia page was spotless, consisting of what read like one long advertisement for their product.
When I tried to edit the page, it was immediately reversed and I received a warning from one of the mods. I explained to him how E-hance is structured, that it’s plainly a pyramid scheme. His reply read: “That’s some of the most astonishing ignorance I’ve ever seen. It’s network marketing, do your homework. E-hance is a dynamic and promising startup that is revitalizing small business in the US.” I pleaded my case with other mods but got some variant of the same response from all of them.
So, I turned my attention to the necklace. Really more of a neck brace as it was rigid, with two small hinges at the back so the “arms” could flex enough to get it around your neck. Neon yellow and blue, just like Sam’s jacket. The thickest piece was the back, to which the two hinged arms attach. On either side was a metal plate, and between them a small hole that I could not discern the purpose of.
So, I looked up the E-hance webpage and clicked the “how does the E-hancer work?” tab. It displayed a flashy animated diagram of the necklace as a rotating wireframe, with a sort of legend to explain what various parts did. I hovered my cursor over the metal plates on the back, and a window popped up. “The E-hancer never needs to be recharged. It runs directly off of your body heat! This also reduces the toxic materials used to make the e-hancer, which is a boon to the environment!”
I moved my cursor to the little hole, but no window popped up. It wasn’t possible to select. So I scrolled down to read the body of the page. “There’s no doubt that it’s a sick, sad world out there. Anyone can see that. But why doesn’t anyone do something about it? That’s the vision which compelled our brilliant founder and CEO, Bruce Hance, to invent the E-hancer whole-body Krion removal device. Krions are nasty energy particles which poison your thoughts with doubts about Bruce Hance, E-Hance Ltd and the E-hancer device.”
An inset jpeg depicted a handsome smiling man with perfect teeth and a touch of grey in his carefully sculpted hair. Beneath it, gold text reading “Bruce Hance, pioneering founder and CEO of E-Hance ltd.” I continued reading. “How does it work? Simplicity itself. Just pull the necklace apart as shown and place it around your neck from behind. You will immediately feel rejuvenated, revitalized, and convinced of the tremendous value that the E-hancer has to offer people in your life who suffer from high levels of Krions.”
An animated gif showed a featureless figure putting on the necklace in an endless loop. “Once this occurs, find your nearest E-hance motivational center to buy E-hancers in bulk to share with your family and friends, as well as to receive instruction on how to deal with doubting Thomases whose negative energy threatens to disrupt your upward trajectory to a brighter future. Do not react with anger, remember it’s just their Krions talking.”
I stared with a mixture of disgust and alarm. Who could fall for this? How big was this company? I couldn’t find anything about where it was located. Surely they were required to divulge that by law? I reported the website to the Better Business Bureau. A short time later I received a reply scolding me for being too closed minded where alternative business models are concerned and urging me to try their product for myself before judging it. My stomach sank.
The next logical step, it seemed to me, was to take the damned thing apart. My degree was in engineering, for all the good it’s done me. But at last, it was coming in handy. I dug up a set of fine tools of the sort used to dismantle watches, smartphones and other delicate devices. Whoever designed this thing, they really didn’t want anybody getting into it. The barely visible seam afforded no gap to wedge anything into.
Only by gently hammering the finest flathead screwdriver against the seam like a chisel did I manage to split it open. Even then, bits of one side broke off and remained connected to the other. I quickly realized this was a lucky break: The tabs where the two sides joined together had sensors attached. Evidently the device could tell if somebody was taking it apart. Did it phone home or something? Could I expect a visit from the cops?
The tabs remained in place however, snapped off in the process of removing one half of the casing. The circuitry inside laid bare, what struck me was the complexity of the chip inside. I’d expect to see this in a top of the line smartphone, not some gimmicky health necklace, or whatever it was. There was of course a small pouch type LiPo battery underneath, to keep it ticking while not worn. But also a spring loaded needle.
That surprised me. Why was that in there? It was positioned to extend through that hole I couldn’t figure out the purpose of before. A bundle of hair thin wires trailed from the back of the needle to the same PCB that the processor was mounted to. Try as I might, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. But there, next to the CPU, was what I recognized as a small solid state flash memory chip. If there were any answers to be had, I knew that’s where I’d find ‘em.
Gingerly, I cut the pins attaching the chip to the PCB one at a time until it came loose. Then set about the slow, tedious process of soldering new leads from each of the pins to a breadboard I’d use to interface with the little guy. One of my robotics projects involved this sort of work so I already had the software needed to dump the contents of the chip. It was not the instant eureka moment I hoped for.
This was some seriously sophisticated code. I couldn’t make heads or tails of most of it. The nearest basis for comparison I had was that some of it appeared to be for motor control, navigation and network disruption. Then I found what I quickly determined was a sort of flowchart. The kind used for very simple AIs like Alice. Trigger words would simply return the appropriate reply from a database.
The replies included “No, it’s network marketing”, “Just try the product once and if it doesn’t blow you away then I’m wrong”, “E-hance is a dynamic and promising startup that is revitalizing small business in the US” and so on. I shuddered, having glimpsed a small piece of the puzzle which I desperately hoped wasn’t what I now suspected. Just then, the disassembled necklace began beeping.
Oh shit. Did it have a cellular antennae? Was it alerting somebody that I’d breached the terms of service, or whatever? I hadn’t signed anything but recalled that in some situations simply using a product is implied acceptance of a long list of terms you don’t even have to read. When I hovered over the necklace searching for what tripped it, I realized too late why it was beeping.
A little CCD camera pivoted to look at me. Then two tiny nozzles took aim, each releasing a violent burst of aerosolized chemical. I dodged, but not quite fast enough. One eye was full of the spray and now burned with a pain beyond description. I thrashed about, screaming in agony until I had the presence of mind to locate my eye wash kit. Hands shaking, I performed the steps from memory as tears streamed down my face, and soon the burning subsided. But I could see nothing out of that eye. I hesitated to call an ambulance because of the insane price of the trip, instead calling a friend to drive me to the hospital. He arrived about thirty minutes later. Would that delay make the difference?
There was somewhat of a crowd waiting to be served but I had health insurance apart from state coverage and my condition was apparently serious enough to merit immediate attention. I hadn’t seen my doctor since I was maybe ten or eleven, that time I wiped out on a dirtbike and needed stitches. Still had the scar on my forehead, the source of no small number of Harry Potter jokes from friends.
“Oh, I’ve seen this before” he muttered once we were alone in the examination room. I felt hopeful. “It’s reversible, right?” He looked at me sternly. “You opened your E-hancer, didn’t you.” Only now did I notice the familiar blue and yellow brace around his neck, tucked almost invisibly into his coat collar. “That’s a violation of the terms of service, which clearly state that to protect E-hance ltd’s intellectual copyright, the device contains countermeasures to prevent reverse-engineering.”
Fuck. The fucking thing was boobytrapped. Asking to see a different doctor got me nowhere. When the nurse came in, she was wearing one of them too. I was sent home with an eyepatch, a tube of antibiotic eye drops and instructions to procure and wear a replacement E-hancer at my earliest possible convenience. Lying through my teeth, I assured him I would, and met my friend in the lobby. He was flirting with a tall statuesque redheaded nurse who was just about to put an E-hancer on him.
“NO!” I blurted out. Everyone stared at me. I seized him by the arm, and over his protestations, dragged him away from the nurse and into the parking lot. “What the fuck, dude? She said she’d give me her digits if I tried on some necklace dealie.” I explained what I knew so far to him on the ride home. He smiled through all of it, and laughed here and there. “Sounds like a conspiracy theory breh. You need some sleep.”
I gave up on it for the time being. Once home, before I hit the hay I sent an email to my boss suggesting cases of eye injury from the E-hancer as a possible story lead. I lay in bed for a while, worrying about my eye before I drifted off. My dreams were bizarre. Always, but especially tonight. I explored my city, or a version of it, where every billboard was blue and yellow. Bearing the E-hance logo, naturally. Every bus ad was for the E-hancer. Everyone wore blue and yellow clothing with the same logo on it.
I woke up sweaty and disoriented. I’d forgotten to set my alarm, but that weird sixth sense that normally wakes you up a minute or two before it goes off saved my bacon. I checked my inbox and found two emails. One from yesterday night, one from this morning. The first read “Very interesting Jack! I can always count on you to find stories where nobody else is looking. I’ll have my assistant check this out and get back to you when I’ve decided.”
The next email took quite a different tone. “Jack, this is concerning your lead idea from yesterday. I got my hands on an E-hancer to see what the fuss was about, and I really think you’ve got the wrong idea if you think this is a scam. It’s like night and day! Have you tried this? I hope so. I went back and read your last email, it smacks of Krion poisoning to me.”
I held my face in my hands. None of this could be happening. Yet when I opened my eyes, reality refused to change. I got up, showered, shaved, took a shit, then applied the eyedrops and put on the patch. Oh boy, I thought, here come the pirate jokes. The other interns had a seriously jockular take on what professionalism means and while most of the time it made work go by faster, my forehead scar made me a target from day one. The eye patch certainly wouldn’t help.
Only, none of them commented on it. No “Arr matey”s, nothing about doubloons, pantaloons or anything ending in ‘oons’. Each greeted me with an almost sickeningly chipper expression and went about their work as if we were strangers. That is, until they noticed I wasn’t wearing an E-hancer. Which is also when I noticed that all of them were. “Krions really sap your productivity you know. If you want on the payroll I’d seriously consider E-hancing your life. I mean, if I were you. Just a suggestion” one of them said.
Didn’t recognize him. Lots of turnover at this level. I got more or less the same spiel from the other interns though. Apparently word spread very quickly that I wasn’t wearing my E-hancer and thus didn’t take the job seriously. After an hour or so I was called in to speak with the HR guy. My boss was also there.
“Jack, I’ve been hearing some disturbing rumors. Is it true that you’ve been told about the benefits of E-hancing your life with a stylish, high tech E-hancer but refuse to? I have to wonder what motivates a poor decision like that. You must not want to E-hance your productivity. Is that because you’re secretly not dedicated to this company and want to see it fail?”
I balked. Then, thinking quickly, began to act my ass off. “My E-hancer was defective. That’s how I got the patch. As soon as I find the time to buy a new one I’ll E-hance my life with it, asap.” Their expressions turned from vaguely menacing to warm relief. “I figured it was something like that, my boy. You always were such an efficient worker. Looks like all of this was just a big misunderstanding! Here, let me save you the trouble of buying a replacement, I have one here.”
I froze. He pulled out a neck brace identical to the one I’d disassembled in my apartment and handed it to me, with an expectant smile. “Well, go on then. As soon as this little matter is settled we can discuss bringing you on as a part timer.” I wanted to cry. The easiest thing in the world would’ve been to slip it on, get the job and reconcile with Samantha. Everything I wanted was just one short step away.
I looked at my watch. Salvation. “It’s lunch break. I’ll put it on once I’ve had something to eat. Better to E-hance my life on a full stomach, surely?” They looked quizzically at me, but didn’t press the matter. As soon as I was out the door I headed home. Just above the speed limit, as a cop pulled up behind me and turned on his lights. Fuck, not now.
I rolled down my window to greet him, license and registration in hand. He asked me what the rush is, and as he leaned in, I noticed the blue and yellow necklace on him. “I’ve only just heard about the fantastic potential of the E-hancer to revolutionize my life! There’s no time to lose, I have to go buy one!” His face lit up. “Well shit, if I’d known that I wouldn’t have stopped you. On your way already! Your E-hanced life awaits!”
Couldn’t believe it was that easy. But the cops too? How did this happen so quickly? I drove past some other poor fool that’d been pulled over. He was cuffed, up against the squad car, and as I squinted to get a better look I realized the officer was placing an E-hancer on him from behind. Returned my eyes to the road just in time to avoid rear-ending a semi.
I burst through the door to my apartment and frantically set about taking the E-hancer apart. This time wearing a welding mask. The aerosol nozzles blasted the mask with sticky blue spray. I took the mask off as I’d no longer need it after that point, and set about neutering the devious little machine. I intuited it needed to think it had already implanted the needle. So I placed one finger on either of the little metal pads. Soon after, the spring loaded needle did indeed jut out of the little hole.
Looking closer, almost invisibly thin tendrils had emerged from the needle’s tip and were flailing around in the air as if searching for something. I snipped the fibrous bundle connecting the needle to the PCB, gripped the needle itself with a set of pliers and yanked it free. A light began blinking and the familiar beeping started, so I snipped out the battery. Just in case it had a GPS tracker, audio bug, or any other unwelcome surprises.
With all of that done, I delicately reassembled the E-hancer and re-sealed it with model airplane glue that cured transparent and could be dried in a few seconds by spraying accelerant on it. Once finished it looked good as new. It’d have to. I admit some degree of hesitation to put it on, even after I’d completely disabled it, but there were only fourteen minutes left in my lunch break and they’d begin to suspect something if I didn’t return on time.
When I showed up at the office with a fake smile on my face and the E-hancer on my neck, everybody’s demeanor was completely different. Where before they’d treated me with stiffness and suspicion, they now congratulated me for “E-hancing my life” and spoke to me with the sort of fondness normally reserved for family members. “Knew you could do it, m’boy!” My boss strode up and violently shook my hand. “Welcome to your new E-hanced life.”
I smiled as wide as I could, made direct eye contact and did my best to sound the part. “Yes sir! E-hance is a dynamic and promising startup that is revitalizing small business in the US, and I’m proud to be a part of that!” You could practically see the endorphins flooding his brain when he heard that. Like the specific rungs and notches on the end of a key depressing every pin by exactly the right amount to open a lock.
I was promptly hired on, not part time but full time, and experienced no further trouble from the boss or any of my co-workers. Once they believed you were “E-hanced”, their weird subtle hostility simply vanished and they turned their attention to the next guy without an E-hancer. The story I was assigned was a big one. Especially for someone who’d been an intern until today. Something about a massive cyberattack on multiple east coast cities involving hijacked TV screens and loudspeakers.
I typed it up best I could. Engineers are not renown for their spelling or grammar. However I received zero criticism when I submitted it for review. Word had gotten around that I’d E-hanced my life. Now it seemed like I could do no wrong in their eyes. My skin crawled. I didn’t understand it fully, not just yet, but the more I saw of this phenomenon more my gut churned.
As I prepared to drive home, I got a call from Samantha. My heart stirred, even as I tried to disrupt that foolishness. “Hello?” Her voice verged on euphoria. “I heard the good news! That’s so incredible! To think that the E-Hancer has the power to change the heart of even the most Krion-hardened skeptic! We should get together and celebrate.” I wanted to decline. I told myself I couldn’t, for the sake of keeping up appearances. But really, petty as it is, I hoped I would now have an in with her. Something to bond over, the beginnings of a new connection between us.
Her idea of celebration was to attend a motivational meeting together. Everybody was lined up in rows of folding metal chairs. Some clean cut douchebag in an expensive suit stood at a podium upfront, with crates of E-hancers stacked floor to ceiling on either side and a projector screen just behind him.
“It’s so wonderful that you could all make it again. Welcome, my brothers and sisters! I see we have a number of new faces in the crowd today! Congratulations on E-hancing your life! If each of you could stand up and supply a testimonal about how embracing the E-hancer has improved your life, that would be fantastic.”
It sounded optional, but wasn’t. One by one people stood and ranted excitedly about how they’d been destitute, lonely and lost before they E-hanced their lives, but were now on an upward spiral of wealth, hope, and personal growth. My turn came up. There was no literal spotlight on me but it damn well felt that way. I nervously stood, thought about how to proceed, then began to gush.
“I uh...was a failure before the E-hancer. My girlfriend left me, I was working a thankless job for no pay and Krions were sapping my productivity. But when I...E-hanced my life...everything changed for the better. You might say it revolutionized my life with its dynamic potential, really. Now I’m a full time employee at the local paper, and reconnecting with people I care about who I never thought I’d see again.”
Everybody clapped uproariously. When I looked down at Sam, she was smiling, her lower lip trembled and there were tears in her eyes. More and more I wondered if this wasn’t all for the best. I had the job I wanted. I could for the first time in nearly a decade see a realistic way to get back with Sam. Couldn’t I just let it happen?
The lights dimmed and the projector cast some sort of infographic on the screen. Initially dull sales figures, but then a world map. Red dots indicated locations of motivational centers. The coasts of America were solid red, completely saturated. “Bad news for the Krions!” he joked. Everybody laughed identically.
We watched clips of ads for the E-hancer in Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Italian and French. Everybody clapped after each one even though they were identical except for the language. Then came an animated display of projected international spread over a one year timeframe. Something seized up in my chest as I watched the red dots rapidly engulf the entire map.
The temptation to go with the flow drained from me. Even if it meant I could have Sam. Even if it meant I could have the job and life I always wanted. I could not abide this. Whatever primal instinct causes us to revile filth, illness and decay flared up in me.
I stayed for the rest of the meeting so as not to arouse suspicion and gave no outward indicator of distress. Inwardly, I was constructing plans to escape the city. I had my old bugout bag from that prepper phase I went through during the Ebola scare. It did double duty as my spontaneous weekend camping gear. That included everything I’d need for perhaps three days on the road. But what then?
“Are you alright? You look troubled. Have you forgotten the blessings of your new E-hanced life?” Samantha clung to my arm, doting on me. It felt inexpressibly fulfilling to receive that kind of attention from her. It’d been so long. But I did not falter.
Smiling wide, I lamented: “Just thinking about all the poor Krion-infested fools out there who haven’t yet E-hanced their lives. If they only knew what they’re missing out on.” Wordlessy, she scooted over and planted one on me. “I really like the new you”, she whispered. No. No, I privately told my heart. Not for you.
Would’ve been nice to know that earlier. I rubbed my eyepatch. I could see only formless, colored shapes. I hoped that meant my eye was recovering. Then I got to wondering if anybody else knew about this. I turned on the TV and flopped down to catch up on the news. After the tail end of a story about the cyber-attacks on East coast cities, there was some fluff piece about a three legged dog who saved a baby. Then something about E-hance! My ears perked up.
“A number of consumers have come forward to complain about a new health device taking the North American market by storm, the E-hancer. Brainchild of Bruce Hance, the E-hancer is purported to improve health, morality, productivity and general happiness by removing Krions from your body. Watchdog organizations we contacted to get their take assure us Krions are real, a serious threat, and that the E-hancer is a dynamic and promising method for removing them. My viewers will know I’ve busted a lot of scams in the past and I won’t fail to investigate this one. I’ll try on the so called E-hancer and find out for you, the viewer, whether it lives up to the hype.”
I groaned. As expected, when he returned he had only glowing praise for the device and urged all viewers to buy one as soon as possible, “With your last few dollars if need be!” Then, abruptly, the emergency broadcast system cut in. It didn’t take long to guess why. Nor did I stick around to wait for the national guard. From what I’d seen to date, I figured when they finally got here, they’d all be wearing E-hancers and the relief trucks would be loaded with crates of ‘em.
I considered buying a gun on my way out of town. Initially, remembering that there’d be a waiting period and background check caused me to write off that possibility. But on a hunch, I stopped by the nearest gun shop my GPS could find. Sure enough, the guy at the counter had an E-hancer on. Breathlessly, I informed him that dangerous creeps who refused to E-hance their lives were after me, simply for delivering a testimonial to them about how it changed my life.
“Muthafuckin’ Krions!” he shouted, and spat on the floor. “This here’s what you need, brother.” He handed over a vicious looking rifle with a massive scope, and a small pistol clipped to the stock. “The rifle’s for taking ‘em out from a distance. That little guy on the butt shoots rimfire, get ‘em in the leg with that, then when you’re close enough, E-hance that sumbitch.” He laughed, so I did too. When I asked what it would set me back, he waved it off. “On the house, since it’s for a good cause.”
That worked so well, I used it several more times to score free gear. Dehydrated backpacking food, camping gear, jugs of gasoline, a tent, tarps, even an emergency radio. After a while I worried I was pressing my luck too far. With my car loaded up, I headed for the interstate. Recalling what I’d seen at the meeting, I evaluated my options as to where I could go. I parked for the night off the road after covering the car with tarps and a bunch of tree branches.
Sleep was fitful. More weird nightmares. When I woke up I had a dozen voice messages on my phone. A few from Sam, about how my boss called her wanting to know where I was. The rest from my boss. The first few sounded worried and compassionate. Each one after that sounded increasingly suspicious and hostile.
I kept going like that, assuming the worst until I began to pick up government transmissions on the radio. “If you’re receiving this and haven’t yet purchased or worn an E-hancer, desist from doing so and stand by for an emergency state of the union address.” I turned up the volume and eagerly listened.
“My fellow Americans. Those of you receiving this address who have already partaken of the E-hancer product which has spread across the country like wildfire over the past month, I am not speaking to you. From what intelligence tells me, this is some kind of contagion. The necklaces hijack the central nervous system, and afflict the brain in such a way as to stop short any thoughts critical of E-hance, any efforts to remove it or desire to obstruct its propagation. It rewards with high doses of dopamine and seratonin any thoughts supportive of E-hance, about convincing others to try it, and to facilitate its growth around the world.”
It lined up with what I’d seen so far, and it was an immense relief to see that an official effort to put a stop to all of this was underway. “I advise those of you not yet afflicted to seek some out of the way retreat, off the beaten path. Do not speak to anybody wearing the E-hancer. If they approach you and you shoot them, you will not be prosecuted. Be warned that they will try every means of contacting and locating you.”
I looked at the messages on my phone, now rapidly multiplying. Check.
“They will make every appeal to your emotions, to practical concerns, to family obligation.” I searched through the new messages. Some were from my sister and parents. All this time, it never occurred to me. There just wasn’t time to save them.
“Any attempt to spread the word through official channels about what the E-hancer really is and how it works will never make it any further than that, as I guarantee you, whoever you contact in the media will already be wearing one. That is in large part how this spread so quickly without anybody realizing what was happening. They act in support of one another to achieve their singular goal, and gang up in mass opposition to any poor soul who realizes what’s occurring and tries to stop it.”
Another big check. I’d been on the receiving end of that reflex for a while, and could see how it might drive one to simply put the fucking necklace on and be done with it. Not me, though. For the first time in years I felt primally driven to survive. Understanding the nature of what even now was consuming the planet lit a fire inside me.
“While they stop short of murder, as a dead man cannot be E-hanced, you can expect beatings, harassment, slander, stalking, and every manner of coercion so long as you refuse to put it on. By the time this was brought to my attention, the National Guard had already received E-hancers they were told were part of a trial program for increasing alertness and morale. My best information indicates they’re a lost cause. As of this broadcast, eleven military bases have been overrun. The rest are fighting tooth and nail to hold back frenzied mobs carrying armloads of E-hancers.”
A reporter cut in, describing a massive crowd surrounding a fenced in base. Swaying in concert, trying to bring the fence down. Various nonlethal weapons were used, including what she described as an "active denial system" based on microwaves. The ones in its area of effect screamed in pain but did not stop shaking the fence "...until the beam destroyed their E-hancer", at which point most expired.
“I want to take this opportunity to assure you that I did not take lightly the decision to order troops to fire on US citizens. That is something which could never happen under any other circumstance. If you’ve encountered the afflicted, perhaps you understand why I did it. If not, I accept your judgement. I only wish to stipulate that the lives lost to this incident weigh heavily on my heart. I-”
Static cut off the rest. I fiddled with the dial but couldn’t get it back. It was enough to know that something would be done. My biggest concern from this point on was simply evading detection until it all blew over. I drove until I ran out of gas. Rather than risk refilling someplace “E-hanced”, I dumped the contents of four of the gas jugs into the tank. That would get me through the day at least.
Lunch was some joker’s idea of stroganoff. When somebody says they have to blow chunks, these are the chunks they mean. I choked it down simply to replenish my energy. It was a game of endurance now. I dwelled on what it meant for Samantha. For my family. Tears began to form. I fought them, as I knew if I started to cry now I would never stop. I turned to the radio for distraction.
“In today’s viral internet media spotlight, user BGreen2010 popularized a hilarious meme of what the typical Krion-addled naysayer looks like. Patchy, unflattering facial hair, a generous bulging gut and headwear that went out of style back when the Macarena was relevant”! Canned laughter followed. “Anybody who knows one of these greasy losers will tell you, they’re kissless virgins with no prospects who go around spouting obnoxious lies about the E-hancer because their daddy made them go to motivational meetings when they would rather play Xbox.”
I changed the channel. “Today, congress unanimously approved a new nationwide curriculum which includes a class about the fabulous E-hancer. Every student will be required to have the opportunity to try the most innovative, dynamic invention since the internet. Parents objecting to their children participating in these classes can sign a slip legally obligating them to attend an E-hancer educational interview at their nearest motivational center.”
More of this shit. I wiped my brow, and turned the dial again. “Today Chinese government officials overturned a ban on the wildly popular E-hancer, which is now their single most imported item. In the interest of ensuring their judgement had been impartial, said officials received delivery of a special set of gold plated E-hancers, individually monogrammed and studded with a variety of precious gems. In a subsequent press release, they issued a joint announcement that the single most important area of technological development for their next five year plan will be to ramp up the domestic production of E-hancers to compete with the US and meet their populations’ ravenous demand.”
Fuck that. Give me some good news already. I turned the dial randomly. “Law enforcement officials across the country have begun speaking out about the epidemic of senseless, brutal violence against innocent Americans simply exercising their right to deliver testimonials about the E-hancer. Wild-eyed gunmen who police speculate have been driven insane by Krion excess have assaulted innocent E-hanced citizens in four separate incidents across the country over the past week. A bill has been fast-tracked through Congress which, if passed, will classify such attacks as hate crimes.”
For a while, I sat silently and thought about my options. Every so often my eyes would linger on the little pistol attached to the butt of that rifle. Rimfire wouldn’t even do the job, would it? I’d have to prop the rifle at an angle to make sure….”NO” I blurted out, aborting the entire line of thought. I’d come this far. Lost everything. Samantha. My family. At last the tears flowed freely. But instead of feeding my melancholy, rage began to grow inside me.
I emptied the last of the gas into my tank and headed for what the GPS told me was a fairly remote gas station proximal to where I ought to run out. Now and then a cop car would pull up alongside me and they’d peer in. Upon spotting my E-hancer and vacant grin, they’d peel away and go on about their business. Which I could guess the nature of.
As I approached the station, the needle was just a hair below empty. Which meant I was on my last few miles of reserve. It finally ran dry within shouting distance, so I just pushed it the rest of the way. A fat fella in a button down shirt and cowboy hat came out to greet me, sporting a red white and blue E-hancer. So they came in various styles now?
He seemed on edge, one hand on the holster at his hip until he saw mine. “Pay no mind, stranger. Just had to be sure”. I smiled and nodded. After I’d filled the tank and the jugs, he told me it’d be $107.98. I gave him the spiel about how I was out hunting skeptics. “Ain’t hardly none of those left. I gots to make a living, you know.” I sighed and pulled out my wallet. Three tens, some fives and a bunch of ones totaling less than fifty.
“Just a minute, I gotta get some cash from my car”, I told him. He made me leave my wallet as collateral. Fine by me. I pulled my rifle from the car, took aim through the window and just as he turned to see what was taking me so long, put a round through his eye. First time I’d fired a gun, much less shot anybody. They don’t fly backwards like in movies, just scrunch up their face like they’ve been hit by a train and immediately drop.
I stood there, reflecting on what I’d done. He seemed human enough to me. But as consumed as everyone else with spreading it to the willing, and bullying the unwilling until they caved. With no way to reverse it, I was left with only one option. It felt morally suspect to absolve myself so quickly but having just fucking shot somebody I didn’t feel like hanging around to give it extended thought. I ran in, lifted the gun off him, and drove off into the night.
I hadn’t thought of the cameras. A few days later while listening to the radio to make the drive less of a chore, I heard a description of my car. So naturally I turned the volume up and began to pay attention. “The as yet unidentified suspect is seen on the security footage sniping the gas station attendant in cold blood. No motive is known but police suspect he is wearing a faulty or counterfeit E-hancer. If you know this man’s whereabouts, there is a reward of fifty additional E-hancers and booklet of tips for more effective testimonial delivery for anybody coming forward with information that leads to his arrest.”
I tensed up and began to panic. No, calm down. Nobody knows where you are just yet. Haven’t so much as seen another car for hours now. The important thing is to get off the road, isn’t it? Too bad this state is a whole lot of desert and wind turbines. Eventually I spotted an abandoned farmhouse. I got out to open the door, carefully drove the car in, then got out and shut the door behind it. By this point they’d be searching the woods along major highways as a matter of course. But they’d not likely think to search a barn.
I took the chance to unwind and cook a meal. I hadn’t eaten since the gas station. Killing a man has a way of diminishing your appetite. While I ate, I turned on the radio, and dialed it back to one of the emergency channels. “-Erroneous information that you may have heard me deliver during a prior address. Disregard all of it. I was at that time under the influence of Krions. A large, well meaning band of devoted E-hance associates were waiting for me when Airforce One landed to refuel. Of course, they’d shot down the plane which normally refuels us in flight, but it’s for the best.”
No. No fucking way. Could it really...? “I strongly urge those of you out there, hiding like cowards in any dark crevice you could find, to give yourselves up. If you are receptive to E-hancement I can offer you a historically unprecedented no strings attached Presidential pardon. That offer is only good so long as you surrender yourselves some time within the next seventy two hours, in accordance with the law passed this morning which renders illegal the refusal of E-hancement, as well as incitement to refusal. Thank you, and Bruce bless.”
Again, my appetite left me. And for the second time in so many days, I thought of eating a bullet instead. I might’ve too, had I not stumbled across the pirate station. “-hearing this who hasn’t yet been E-hanced, you are the resistance. I can’t tell you our coordinates for obvious reasons. But if you’re receiving this signal clearly, you’re already close. We’ve established a secure base of operations consisting of everyone who managed to make it without...well, you know by now. We need food, clean water, medication and ammunition. But in truth, we’ll take you as you are. Not a whole lot of us left by the looks of it. When the static starts you’ll know you’re getting cold. Sorry we can’t bring you right in, but you know why that is. If you do manage to track us down, we’ll give you a warm welcome. With enough numbers, and the will to survive, we may yet make it through all of this. This message is a recording and will repeat.”
I listened to the full thing hoping for useful details I’d missed, but none of it contained any clues as to where to find them. Relief washed over me, nonetheless. This is what I’d been searching for. I pulled off the false E-hancer and tossed it out the window. I then brought up a map of the area on the GPS and looked for anything nearby that would make a serviceable fort. All I could find was a ranch, so I headed for it.
As I pulled in, men with rifles appeared along the top of the wall. One held up a megaphone and called out “Get out of the car slowly, lay down your guns and show us your neck.” I obliged. “The back too. Some of ‘em pull off the little arms.” I took off my jacket and shirt, then slowly turned in place with my hands up. Once satisfied I didn’t have one on, the gate opened and a group came out to meet me.
“Heard the broadcast, huh? Lucky dog. You’re the first straggler we’ve received in weeks, we were just about to call it good and turn that fuckin’ thing off. Too big of a risk now. What’s that, a Honda? Good, those things are built to last. Come in and eat something, you look run ragged.” I was, too. Somehow it didn’t really hit me until I sat down. Must’ve been running on adrenaline until then.
They really were in a bad way. What little meat they had came from horses they’d found here and slaughtered one by one as needed to keep everyone fed. It still beat the pants off the backpacking food, so I dug in. The guy calling the shots identified himself as Bill and asked me to share a little bit about myself.
“All this took me by surprise. Didn’t know it was happening till it was everywhere. One day I got a call from my ex wanting to meet me for coffee. I mean, what’s suspicious about that? So I go, and there she is wearing one of ‘em, giving me the song and dance about how I ought to try it out. It just progressed from there. Everybody at work had one on, the cops, everyone.” Many nodded silently, apparently having had similar experiences.
A skinny balding fella in blue mechanics coveralls across from me gestured to my eyepatch. “You tried to open one, didn’t ya.” I nodded. He shook his head and sucked air in through his teeth. “Nasty shit in dere. No good tryna open it up. Breaches the terms of service anyway.” I nodded and resumed eating, but as I processed that last bit, my body went cold. “Uh...is there a shitter in here or like, an outhouse? Or…?”
Bill told me to go down the hallway and take the third left. I checked all of the rooms on the way until I found the one they were using as an armory. There were my guns, sitting atop a crate. A sliver of doubt nagged at me as I lifted the lid, hoping desperately for anything else. But no. Inside were hundreds of E-hancers. As well as fat stacks of $20s, and paperwork bearing a government seal.
“Hay, you havin’ trouble in there? You fall in or whut?” Faint laughter followed. When I didn’t answer there was a long silence. Then a stampede down the hallway. I shut the door, locked it and barricaded it with the crate. “Now don’t you go turnin’ on us when we took you in son, that’s hardly hospitable. Open the door. Open the fucking door buddy.” They set to pounding on it, throwing their weight against it and even shot a few holes in it until Bill told them he wanted me alive.
Before me on the ground lay the handgun I’d lifted off the gas station attendant to my left, and an E-hancer to my right. Sweating profusely, I looked first at one, then the other, then back again. The only two ways out of this room. “It’s the Krions makin’ you do this, make no mistake about it!” Bill’s muffled voice hollered through the door. “Don’t listen to Krionic lies. Listen to me. Just take a chance on it kid, whatever wrong headed ideas made you run, take a chance you’re wrong about it. If you don’t, you know what I gotta do. I don’t want to but it’s out of my hands. You don’t got long.”
Left, then right. Then left. I ran my hands through my hair. I picked up the pistol and slowly slid the end into my mouth at an upward angle. No, that’s wrong, isn’t it? It’s the brainstem you aim for. Stops your heart and lungs, so you die quicker. The pounding resumed. Dust and wood splinters drifted through the air as the hinges started to come loose.
I thought of Sam. Of mom and dad. Would it hurt them? The way they are now, I mean. I wished I could talk to them before I did it. But the more I dwelled on it the harder it became. It’s all in the sudden, thoughtless impulse. Like ripping off a bandaid. I began to cry out, anxiety eating at me as the seconds remaining in my life counted down.
In one swift motion, I dropped the gun and put on the necklace. I felt a sharp pinch at the base of my neck, then waves of pleasure cascading through me. All of a sudden, I understood. With the veil ripped from my eyes, I could at last see every moving part in perfect clarity, labeled for my edification. Why does anybody run from this? Why did I run? Can’t even remember. It would’ve been so much easier if I’d listened sooner.