Kima reached her fingers around to the back of her neck, brushing away her midnight curls. She touched the first prong in her spine. She rubbed her finger down the smooth metal square, just smaller than her fingertip. She applied her middle finger to the second prong, then she hesitated, hovering her pinkie above the third that would activate the Sullivan Corp implant.
Never be alone again. She’d always have a family. Impz didn’t feel. They only fed, but they lived in constant congregation. They never need be alone.
No. Seth said he’d be back soon. He’d never let her down. Eventually he would. One day, he’d leave and not return.
An owl screeched in the surrounding woods, and her body jumped, nearly knocking her off the overturned pew. She pulled her hand away and grabbed a tarnished candlestick from the floor, using it as a club. She clutched Mr. Fox under her arm—the plush fox her father had given before blowing off his head with a shotgun when she was six. She scanned the derelict church for Impz, searching for azure eyes piercing the dark. She curled into the corner, her legs freezing on the stone floor. She sat below where the crucifix had hung, but it had been a long time since the Christian martyr had been removed, phased out, upgraded to God.2. A broken MP3 player collected dust on the altar.
She reached her hand around to her neck, hung her pinkie over the third prong. A shadow moved in the foyer.
“You promised me,” Seth said.
She let her hand fall away from her neck.
“I didn’t know if you were coming back.”
He clutched two cans and a bag of rice under his arm. “Found these in some houses nearby, but we’ve got to move. They’re coming.” He stopped to reload the shotgun, then he counted the few remaining shells, shaking his head.
“Can’t we just stay for a little while? I need the peace.”
“They looked like they were shorting out, probably hadn’t sucked any volts lately. We should be able to lose them if their implants are too under juiced to transmit.”
He grabbed her shoulder. She lurched back against the wall.
“Damn it, Kima. Do you love me?”
She hesitated. He waited. Her throat tightened. He looked through her. She nodded, and he helped her stand.
“You will leave me,” she said.
“We don’t have time for this. Again and again.” He tugged her forward, pulling her out of the church. She jogged behind him and out into the rolling field. The dark wet grass licked her torn sneakers, soaking her feet. The cold moved up through her legs, and she shivered. The field lit up from the crimson Coke sign glowing in the sky, along with several other brands on orbiting billboards, killing the stars. Sullivan Corporation, the makers of the implants, boasted the largest Orb-Ad. It flashed the company logo then the image changed to seven human outlines of different sizes all holding hands. Their motto flashed:
Sullivan Corp. Never Be Lonely Again.
She heard the Impz clicking from the tree line. One emerged into the field and staggered after them. He snapped his tongue. Behind him, the others clicked in choir, amplifying as they closed the distance. She never understood why they clicked their tongues. She wondered if it was binary, a way of communicating. Zeros and ones.
“We can lose them.” They ran to the north forest, paralleling the city of Lansdale. They didn’t dare go any closer to Philadelphia. Impz gathered in the cities, turned them into hives.
She looked behind, watching their blue eyes glowing in the dark. The group looked like a family from before the Liberation—still dressed, still groomed—but sores burst on their open skin oozing pus. A little girl chased behind her parents, and Kima felt such need to join them, to take them in hand and share in their comfort.
“I used to pilot the maglev in this area, making the Bos-Wash run. I fished the river in these parts during layovers. There’s a lone farmhouse a few mouths north, close to the Delaware. We’ll get there and bed down.”
He took Kima’s arm. She might have loved him. She needed Seth. Maybe that’s all love was.
“Where’s Mr. Fox?”
She couldn’t find the plush fox under her arm. She stopped, and he nearly pulled her off her feet.
“Christ. Just leave it.”
She ran back through wet grass. The family of Impz moved on her. She spotted the fox and dashed for it.
“I swear I’ll leave you here.” He punched the air.
Mother Impz lunged for her, grabbing her shoulder. The mother’s touch burned from body fever. She snapped open her jaw, and her stiletto tongue, changed by the evolution shift, moved for Kima’s skull. Kima fell. The Impz reached for her, hovering over, rapidly clicking her tongue. Then, her chest exploded in blood. The shell knocked her back. Kima got to her feet and ran for Seth. He reloaded the shotgun.
“Every Impz in two miles will be on us now.”
“Did you mean it?”
He sighed. “No.”
* * *
They lost the Impz in the forest and made their way north, climbing up the hills in what was once Washington Crossing Park, heading to the Delaware. Once in awhile, they’d encounter a sniffer Impz as it tracked deer or groundhogs in the wood. Some Impz gained extrasensory abilities. Animal brains didn’t satiate like human’s, but with the population of regular humans dwindling, the Impz got desperate. Kima hadn’t seen a cat or dog in the last six months.
“Was that damn fox so important?”
“I grew up alone, stuck in the foster system. My first set of parents locked me in the basement and collected the checks. My next father felt me up.”
“I know,” he said. “I’d say sorry, but it wouldn’t mean anything.”
She gazed up at the crowded night sky, searching for a hint of starlight. Her father had taught astrophysics at Penn. She never knew her mother. Somewhere above the Ariadne Satellite cogitated and thought, consuming the minds of those with activated implants that had been the next evolution of cell phones. Direct brain interaction with the internet had evolved humans to the next level. Parents had implants surgically installed at birth so it could grow into the brain, develop. Human minds depended on them now. Ariadne, the great mother A.I., looked after her children, tended to them, even decided that they were a danger to themselves and took control. It happened in a millisecond, then vampires swarmed the earth.
“Why do they try to eat our heads?”
“The power systems are internal for the implants. They can be charged through the prongs, but if that isn’t available, the implants can feed on extra brain chemicals such as dopamine, neurotransmitters. We’re just batteries to them. I was working on a upgrade to use solar power gathered through implanted photoelectric cells in the skin. I had my implant deactivated to test it when the Liberation happened.”
She’d neglected to pay her Sullivan Corp bill, so they’d deactivated service. That accounted for most of those not affected.
“Fifty percent of users didn’t survive the Liberation. Had a brain hemorrhage. According to the user statistics, only about twenty percent of the population remained normal.”
“And became Impz food.”
“Enough of us just have to survive and outlive them. Then we can start over. Once a generation, a plague shall be visited.”
They trudged through a stream, and Kima slipped in the mud. It soaked her sweater and jeans. She clung onto Mr. Fox, nearly losing him in the water. Seth helped her up. They walked through fallow fields where corn and wheat once flourished, heading to the farmhouse. She couldn’t see any roads and hoped this would be far enough from any Impz to notice. The gardens grew fresh vegetables, and an oil lamp burned in the window, glowing orange in the night. Seth knocked on the door.
“Wait. What if?” she said.
“Nah. They wouldn’t be burning an oil lamp. They wouldn’t know how.”
The white paint on the door had mostly chipped away. The curtain parted in the window. The door opened a crack. A shotgun barrel slipped out.
“I’ll shoot ya if you’re deadheads,” a smoker’s voice rasped. “Got enough rats on the farm.”
“Ma’am. We’re not liberated.”
“Ain’t Jehovah’s Witnesses? I shoot them too.”
“There’s no more church left in the world. Sullivan Corp bought it out.”
The door swung open. Kima’s nose twitched at a sour smell that reminded her of pickled eggs or maybe old liquor. A layer of filth covered the couches and chairs in the living room. A faded portrait of a navy admiral hung over the collapsed fireplace.
“Well best come inside,” she said. “Don’t get many visitors these days.”
The old woman fixed her hair, though most had fallen out, exposing the patchy dry skin of her scalp. Her gut bulged under her flowery dress.
“Where did you get that scar?” Kima said, shocked by the length of the scar tissue down the left side of the old woman’s cheek.
“I’m Kipper Lee. And they can see us you know. The machine in my head broke before it happened, but even so they can watch your thoughts. I hear them humming from me teeth. Whispering. My teeth try to bite me, so I pulls them out.”
She opened her jaw to reveal a toothless mouth.
“I’ll put the kettle on.”
Kipper Lee moved them into the kitchen, and Kima sat at a rickety table. Seth sat on a crate by the window and held back the grimy curtains, watching the grounds. He held his shotgun at the ready. Kima noticed his cheek twitched, a sign of all the tension building up underneath. Kipper Lee filled a kettle with water from a well tap and turned on her solar stove still charged from the day. She sat down and played with a rusty screwdriver she plucked from the table.
“You live around here?” she asked.
“I grew up in New Jersey,” Kima said. “Seth is from Sullivan Corp City.”
He frowned at her for revealing his old hometown.
“So you worked for the shortsighted bastards then, did ya? The ones who rushed out a product and didn’t think of the future.”
He sighed. “I didn’t make this happen. I was a little cog in a grand mad machine. This was all of us.”
“That’s between you and your judge,” Kipper said.
The water boiled, and she set out cups. She didn’t use teabags and just filled them with hot water. “Sugar?” she asked, moving an empty crystal bowl forward.
“You kids headed out west to the surf and sun? Going to make some babies?”
“No ma’am. We’re headed to a military reservation. We heard this signal over the radio. The remaining military has set up a safe zone, some kind of distortion field that disrupts Ariadne’s net signal. Most soldiers weren’t affected because they had their own encoded system on a private server. They say it’s safe. A new start.”
She shook her head then puckered her lips. “Always a promised land. Same dream, different fools.”
Seth twisted his head and stood up from the crate. He turned down the oil lamp to sickly glow. “Shut up. They followed us.”
Kima’s stomach clenched.
“I’ll just be gone for an hour. I’ll lead them away.”
She grabbed his arm. “You won’t come back.”
“No time,” he said. “I’m going. I’ll be back.” He leaned forward and kissed her. She returned it out of reflex. He ripped himself away and slipped out the door.
“Is that your baby?” Kipper Lee said, pointing to the plush fox. “Ugly brat.”
* * *
The grandfather clock chimed and rhymed one time. Kima curled up on the dirty couch, cuddling Mr. Fox. Seth had been gone a few hours. Whether by his own choice or if the Impz fed on his brain, he’d abandoned her just like they all had.
They had survived together since The Liberation. At first, those who survived but had been liberated didn’t harm anyone. They powered up normally and just sat in the streets or their homes, gazing off to no particular points. They no longer spoke nor seemed to have any need for food. Then the power went out.
“Damn chatter box radio in my teeth,” Kipper Lee shouted from the kitchen. “Why don’t you ever play Jason Mraz or Coldplay?” The kettle flew out and crashed into the wall above Kima.
“Are you feelin’ poorly, Ms. Lee?” Kima got up and stepped into the kitchen.
“In my head,” she rasped. “They can hear my thoughts. They know my fantasies, my dreams.” She drove the screwdriver into her flesh and ripped it apart like she pulled down a zipper. Flesh bubbled out, exposing red jaw muscle and bone, and blood poured down her side and chair into a floor puddle. She drove the screwdriver down her neck, and the blood shoot out and splattered Mr. Fox.
Kima ran from the house and out onto the porch. She reached for the prongs.
Seth stepped out of the night.
“Do you think they fear? Or hurt?” she asked.
He sat next to her, catching his breath. His chest pulsed quickly, and he squeezed the water out of his drenched pants.
“I fear. I hurt. You have no faith in me.”
“Don’t take it personally, baby,” Kima said. “I’m just living real.”
* * *
They followed railroad tracks—old and abandoned since the magnetic levitation system was installed—north to the GPS coordinates reported on the military’s broadcast. They avoided Allentown, walking along the side of the highway filled with rusted vehicles. They slept during the day in abandoned houses and fled in the night, under the watchful family of the Sullivan Corp Orb-Ad. They climbed the hill from the valley.
“It’s close. See the cordon up on the hillside? Almost there.”
She scanned the hill. Seven radio towers encircled it. A silver light pulsed on each of their crowns. Walls lined the top of the hill interspersed with watch towers. A mass of Impz swarmed along the invisible barrier, at least five persons deep, surrounding the hillside, probably going on for miles. The countryside clicked from the choir of their tongues, beating on her ears.
“We’ve come so far just to die here,” she said.
“I have a plan.”
He tugged on her hand, pulling her forward. He led her behind an old barn. Most of it had collapsed, and she ducked down behind a tractor.
“Give me a few minutes, and when you see the crowd break up, run. Just run through and don’t stop. Get over the finish line.”
She grabbed his thigh and drove her nails through his pants and into his skin. “You’re leaving me.”
He paused then wiped his face with the bottom of his shirt. “Trust.” He broke from her grip and bolted from the barn, flying like a comet into the mass of Impz. He cried out as ran, yelling nonsense but with warrior’s intent. The outer Impz turned and spotted him. They charged, and soon chunks of the mass detached and stormed. Seth turned around and ran away from the barn, leading them away. When she saw the break in the siege, she jumped to her feet and struck her forehead on the tractor’s iron hide. The shock threw her back, and her head spun. She shook it off and ran, pumping her sore legs, making for the passage through the Impz. She didn’t turn back, trusting Seth to return soon after circling back, leading the Impz far. She struggled to ascend the hillside. Her calf muscles burned, but she ignored the pain. She ran through a few stragglers who gave chase and reached the base of one of the towers. She collapsed. One of the stragglers tripped and fell through the invisible cordon. His body convulsed. His mouth foamed. His azure eyes dimmed, then he struggled no more.
“Seth?” she yelled. She scanned the valley below. Seth’s shotgun reported and flashed from the center of the mob, but she could see only the mass of Impz. They’d stopped running and hoarded around him in the field.
Two soldiers patrolling atop the wall stopped and called down to her. “Ma’am. Talk. Now!” They aimed their pulse rifles at her. The coils on the weapons buzzed as they charged.
“He lied to me,” she said. Her lips stiffened. “He knew.”
“Just hold tight,” one of the soldiers said. He reached for a radio in his gray fatigues and requested a rope. “We’ll lower it down and pull you to safety.”
She leaned against the base of the tower, her back aching against the hard metal. The mass dispersed from the field and seeped back to the perimeter. She tugged on Mr. Fox, ripping one of his legs off. She reached to her neck, touching both leads. She shed her emotional weight, sloughed it off, letting go, releasing memories of her father, her hard life in foster care, even Seth. She sighed through a gentle grin knowing the pain would end in electronic nepenthe, in radio wave panacea. She stood up and took a step towards the mob, her brothers and sisters, mothers and father. They’d welcome her home. They’d been waiting for her. She touched her pinkie to the final lead. Her mind’s eye filled with initialization commands and diagnostic code. A white flash washed through her mind and cleansed all the human rubbish, the detritus of wild mental evolution, all the pain, all the fear. It cured her of hope, and she laughed in relief. Then she flew. She flew with her family, her body still on earth, and her thoughts died and blew away. Mr. Fox dropped from her arm. She merged into the mass.
The Orb-Ad sign above flashed its motto:
Never Be Lonely Again.
Never Be Lonely Again.
Never Be Lonely Again.
By T. Fox Dunham
- Fox Dunham lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Allison. He’s a lymphoma survivor, cancer patient, modern bard and historian. His first book, The Street Martyr, was published by Gutter Books. A major motion picture based on the book is being produced by Throughline Films. Destroying the Tangible Illusion of Reality or Searching for Andy Kaufman, a book about what it’s like to be dying of cancer, was recently released from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing and Fox has a story in the Stargate Anthology Points of Origin from MGM and Fandemonium Books. Fox is an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and he’s had published hundreds of short stories and articles. He’s host and creator of What Are You Afraid Of? Horror & Paranormal Show, a popular horror program on PARA-X RADIO. His motto is wrecking civilization one story at a time. Blog: http://tfoxdunham.blogspot.com/.http://www.facebook.com/tfoxdunham & Twitter: @TFoxDunham