Picture it. An alien ship makes a drop into low Earth orbit. They don't have much in the way of weapons, and their ship can't hold up to a few missiles. We don't even use nukes to drop them. Their ship crashes and ground troops sterilize the insides. A few of them must have survived. It couldn't have been more than a couple. Maybe they didn't even escape. Maybe they're all in a little concrete hole being studied. They didn't need to escape.
I've got to say, I almost felt bad when the news came on about how effective we were at wiping them out. Even if they were invaders, we really didn't give them a chance. Yeah, I guess I did feel bad. Two years later and I'm standing at my front door staring down the mail man.
"Don't say a word," I mutter.
I don't like the mailman. No one does. He's our key to the outside. The news went off the air and the internet got smashed to bits with a million hammers too soon to one another. I don't know if that's how it happened because I wasn't reading the news that day. Now there's the daily reader. It's on a pamphlet. I watch him drop the slip of paper in through my door, then I watch him leave. The pamphlet is small, no larger than two playing cards folded together. Half of the front end is taken up by a photograph. I take it to the breakfast table where my coffee has gone cold. On the front page is a list of safe phone numbers and the regional listing of this week's screened supermarkets. There's one in McClain with a sale on eggs. I need toothpaste. I call my best friend.
"This is Suze," she says, "Who's calling?"
"Rick," I say, then wait.
"Rick, I can't talk right now. My landlord killed himself this morning."
"The police suggested I make an appointment just to be safe. I'm going to be in the hospital until tomorrow morning. Can we talk then?"
Memologists. They're the doctors that hold the keys. Memologists can tell you for sure if you're a trigger-case. It's a complex process, and no single doctor can know enough to properly diagnose you by themselves. That's the nature of the disease. If you're infected, your brain gets bleached. After that you're not a problem to anybody. Of course our medicine against this particular brand of plague is still in the stone age. Other than naming it we haven't made much progress.
"Suze," I say, "When was the last time you talked to him?"
"A month," she says, "He called bitching about the rent."
"You're fine," I say, "I need toothpaste. Do you have any?"
Suze holds her breath. I can feel her weighing her options. Telling her I'm sure she's fine might make me a rock star in her mind.
"Come over around three," she says, "I've got some."
At three I switch on my glasses, and walk out. Keeping to back streets I run into very few people. The few I do see are cloaked in digital shadow. It's a simple augment, but effective. I can't see them and if they're smart they can't see me. I'm already taking a big enough risk by visiting Suze. When I get to her house I see the police car. Two shadows are staring at me from the sidewalk. The police car recognizes my face, but no one comes out to arrest me - which is a good sign. I knock on Suze's door and turn off the glasses.
The second thing I notice about her is her necklace. I look her up in the eyes and ask if I can come in. She says sure, but she's looking behind me at the cops.
"They must be checking to see if your landlord got to anyone," I say in an attempt to ooze confidence, but that well is long dry.
"They said they found an FM radio," she says, closing the door, "Modded to hook into a laptop."
"That's not our problem," I say. I want to stand over her and hold her by the shoulders and tell her everything's going to be okay. Neither of us has movie star looks, but she wears her make-up thick, and it works well. I'm pretty sure she could have gotten a role somewhere. Of course Hollywood was shut down after they stopped complying with the screeners.
"Son of a bitch was using it for file sharing," she says.
"Any idea what he was sharing?"
She shakes her head. These days it's unlikely that an FM network would be set up for recreation. Marconi-net is too slow for video sharing and an inefficient means of transmitting music when the alternative is conventional music radio. These days it's almost all text. As a prophylactic measure to cut down on communication, the FCC's head surgeon has flooded the airwaves with automated music stations and packaged digital announcements. It sounds like an extreme measure, but since its implementation the murder rate has dropped. Of course other than that there are numbers stations. No one knew what they did before and no one knows what they do now. There are just more of them.
"So about that toothpaste..." I say. She gets up and disappears into the bathroom to retrieve it. As she rummages out of sight, I momentarily switch my specs back on and glance out onto the street. The cops and the digital shadows obscuring them are gone.
"They're sample packets," she says from the other room, "Megan picked them up a few months back." When she comes back she's holding a pair of scissors, "Take off those glasses. When was the last time you had your hair cut?"
It's been a while. She motions for me to sit in a lounge chair and switches on a lamp directly above it. When the scissors start snipping near my ears I remind myself that she's unlikely to be a trigger-case. Still, I carefully monitor what she says during the course of my haircut. I can't help but feel soothed by the human contact. The sun sets. By the end of it she lowers a mirror in front of me and I look halfway decent again. I don't get a chance to thank her before the door opens and a man walks in.
"Hey, Suze," he says, "I'm here to pick up my french press."
I've never seen him before. He's a tall thin man, but it's hard to get a feel for his physique under that long coat.
"Burt," Suze says, "You should've knocked."
"Yeah, yeah," he says waving her away with his hand, "Sorry I want some coffee. Did you hear about Rej?"
"Killed himself," Suze says walking over to her stereo and picking up the french press, "Gimme a minute to rinse this out."
"Don't trouble yourself," Burt says, "I'll run those grounds through again. A knife, a bottle of books, and keys."
Muscles in my left leg twitch like a clock. The feeling reaches up the side of my pelvis and my whole left side goes numb. Suze drops the french press and it shatters. Wetness and coffee grounds are everywhere. She runs into the bathroom.
Suze has a coffee table in the middle of her room. It's cheap throwaway cobbling of particle board passed down through several generations of thrift stores and somehow still standing. It's light as a feather once the stack of old magazines falls off, and I lunge at Reg brandishing it. He scatters like buckshot into the yard and falls with a loud whump. I hear the whine of a police drone descending on the parking lot. Whatever trap the police set earlier today springs. Not thinking, I run outside.
My first thought is to wonder where they were all hiding. From blinding lights several masked men run around the front door with rifles trained on us. I stand with my hands up as shouts pierce the night sky.
"A knife, a bottle of books, and keys," Burt says on his knees with his hands behind his head, "A knife, a bottle of books, and keys!" Then he lets out a long sustained scream. The police descend on him and he's dragged beyond the light. He's still screaming when I hear a voice call through a megaphone,
"Go back inside your home."
I obey. Burt's screaming is cut short by the slam of a door. Inside, I back into Suze's lounge chair and sit down. I wait. They're not going to come in to interview us. They already know what happened and they know who we are. That's all they really need to keep the fight going.
Suze comes out of the bathroom. Tremors run through her arms as she shuffles through broken glass to where the table was. She picks up a lighter from the floor and a pack of cigarettes.
"I wasn't sick," she says simply, then sits down and stares at the wall.
She's still alive, but then again she would be. In the early days the incubation period for trigger cases was virtually nonexistent. It spread outward from a collection of shacks in New Mexico and hit Albuquerque two days later. After that it became harder to track. News stations shut down. Then we heard reports of trigger cases activating while reading the newspaper. That was the day I noticed my mailman couldn't see anymore. I'd love to know how that happened, but I don't suppose I ever will.
"How did it feel for you?" Suze asks. She's rubbing her hands together, trying to hide the tremors.
"Bad," I say, "I could feel it-" I interrupt the thought and look at her hands, "I could feel it."
"Like hot electricity," she says. I notice she's rubbing her hands together really hard. She looks up at me, "Was that the first one for you?"
"Yes," I say, "My street's pretty quiet."
"I'm sorry," She says, "I'm really sorry."
"Bah," I say waving my hand, "Not your fault."
"Do you believe all that about the aliens?" she says, "Do you think they came down and somehow said the right words to get this thing going?"
I don't say anything. It's not uncommon for people to challenge the alien explanation. We didn't have enough time to metabolize it before our information outlets were shut down. I still think our generation never developed a concept of information permanence. In an environment where facts are constantly retrievable, what need is there to remember?
I don't say anything for a while. She's close. On the couch next to her are the scissors she used to cut my hair. They're not just sharp, they're long.
"I made a mistake," she says, "You're uneven."
I reach up and tap my fingers around the circumference of my head. It's true. I almost feel like I could fix it myself. She places her fingers through the scissor loops and rises.
"It's alright," I say placing a hand on her shoulder, "Not right now."
She sits and I immediately recognize what I'm feeling. My heart is dripping into my stomach like cough syrup. My shoulders slump and I feel the back of my neck tingle. I'm feeling guilt. It's a good sign.
"I know you think I'm about to snap," she says, "But I'm not."
"You're shaking a lot," I say, "I mean a lot."
"I'm scared. I'm not going to hurt you."
"Suze," I say, "I don't know."
"Stay with me, Rick," she says, "Just be here if it happens."
I met Suze in high school. Back then we both hung out with the same crowd. We were two people who happened to listen to the same bad music and wear the same goofy clothes. I think in those days I might have had a thing for her. We never dated, never really became close. But she stayed when the others left, so it was natural that we stay friends.
The couch cushion squeaks when I sit next to her. We stare at the dead television to the tune of a ticking clock. Timidly her hand drifts to mine and our fingers clasp together. Nobody says anything. When the sun comes up I'll see a doctor.