Shiny Happy PeoplebyJukeboxEMCSA©
Civilization collapsed on November 29th, 2008, but Leigh was a little distracted that morning, so she missed a lot of it.
She noticed a few things. When she was waiting for the bus, she noticed a man across the street who had an odd metal glove on his left hand. She thought that maybe he was a Michael Jackson fan, and she thought it was kind of strange that he kept rubbing the glove up against the streetlight, but just then the bus arrived, and she climbed on board.
She barely caught sight of the woman who just missed the bus, sprinting to the stop just as it was pulling away, but that just set her mind thinking about how the driver on this particular route was so obnoxious about not waiting for people even when he must be able to clearly see them in his rear-view mirror, and although she noticed the spiderweb of metal on the woman's face, this was Los Angeles, and people wore strange fashions and did strange things.
Leigh got into the lab, and started running tests on the baryon chamber, and from then on, her mind was occupied with work for the next eight hours. She never listened to the radio at work--the building was shielded from so many different particle types in order to avoid contaminating lab results that radio reception was non-existent; ditto with television, which Leigh didn't bother much with anyway. Lab work was her Zen, she'd once said.
She sometimes signed onto the Internet at lunch, but today she was busy trying to figure out why she was getting power surges in the capacitors, which meant that "lunch" was "suddenly notice around four o'clock that your stomach has passed beyond growling and is now well into howling, and go grab a granola bar." All of which meant that when she finally left the lab, sealed shut the security doors, and walked out onto the streets of LA, the lack of noise that greeted her was as loud as a shout.
The lack of traffic felt sinister and oppressive to Leigh as she walked down the street towards the bus station. To walk two blocks in Los Angeles and not see a single car go by didn't just seem unusual, it seemed like a derangement in the order of the world, as unnatural and unwelcome as a pinpoint black hole suddenly appearing in her bedroom. She didn't see any people, either. She almost shouted, but a lifetime of pop culture had left her feeling like she was suddenly walking through a horror movie, and a lifetime of watching horror movies had taught her that if you were walking down a totally deserted street in a totally silent city, the last thing you did was draw attention to yourself. It was a silly, surreal thought, but it kept Leigh's lips sealed as she headed towards the bus station.
She never reached it. Instead, she spotted movement out of the corner of her eye, a silhouette moving in one of the office buildings that dotted this part of the city. When she turned to focus on it, the person receded into the depths of the building. Ordinarily, Leigh would have kept going; when people were commonplace, you didn't feel a great need to follow any particular one. But when people were rare, indeed just about unique, Leigh felt like she should take the time to find out why. She headed for the door to the building, found it unlocked, and went inside.
The power was off. Thinking back, she realized that the power had been off the whole way down the street; her lab was on a generator, and it was still daylight, so the lack of electricity hadn't been conspicuous. But inside, the shadows and darkness forcibly reminded Leigh that office buildings were made to take advantage of ready electricity. Without that flow of power, the familiar and welcoming (if a bit sterile) environment of the corporate office became a hostile, threatening place. One that Leigh had just walked into. One other person was already inside, perhaps the only other person in the building, perhaps the only other person in the city for all Leigh knew. She looked around for something heavy.
She didn't find anything heavy, but she did find something sharp. She picked up a pair of scissors, and continued on her way into the office. "Hello?" she said softly, not sure whether she wanted to find this other person or not. "I saw you on the street. Please don't be afraid." Or violent, she thought. Please don't be violent.
She ventured deeper into the maze of shadows, occasionally drawn on by a half-imagined rustle of sound, an eye-straining almost-glimpse of something in what was now nearly pitch darkness. She wished for a flashlight, a radio, a small contingent of the National Guard walking behind her, anything beyond her walking around in the near-dark with a pair of scissors. When she heard the noise behind her, she whirled around as the adrenaline rushed to her brain, almost screaming.
The other woman held the blade to a paper cutter, removed from its board and wielded like a machete. She had short brown hair, a business suit that looked disheveled and stained, although it was hard to tell with her standing against the only source of light. Leigh couldn't see her face, but the way she stood suggested that she was in the same adrenaline-crazed state as Leigh. Perhaps worse. Her voice was taut. "Tell me they haven't touched you," she said.
Leigh wanted to ask who 'they' were, but calming this woman down took precedence. "Nobody's touched me," she said in calm, soothing tones. "I've been alone for the last eight hours. What's happened? Where is everyone? Was the city evacuated?" Leigh noticed the calm, soothing tones seeping out of her voice, but panic was starting to set in, now. Had already set in, she realized, noticing the way her fingers gripped the scissors so tightly they almost hurt.
"No. Not like you're thinking, anyway." The woman relaxed a little. But only a little. "I think most of them have fanned out now, started heading for other cities. They're very well organized. I think they're communicating with each other, somehow. Not just with speech, they don't talk much." She shifted her weight anxiously from side to side, obviously uncomfortable with staying in one place and talking. "I don't know how many are left in the city now, but they're not wasting much time searching for people. They're guarding food supplies. Hunger will draw us out eventually."
"Please, I don't understand," Leigh said, trying to control the slithering panic in her gut. "Who are they?"
"I--they used to be us. It's like an infection, I don't know what it is, but it's passed on by touch. It's like a little silver dot, but it gets bigger, spreads across your body like a spiderweb. The people that get touched, they get all...I dunno, dopey, mindless. They start doing weird things, humping cars or rubbing themselves up against mailboxes. Eventually, it coats you completely, and you become one of them. Then you start looking for more people to touch." Leigh heard that same tone of panic in the other woman's voice, and knew that she'd been blocking out the enormity of what had happened until she was forced to describe it. "They're smiling, they're always smiling, and oh, God, it's like I'm living in a fucking horror movie!"
Leigh knew she had to do something, or this woman was going to lose it completely. The last thing she wanted was to be around a screaming woman right now, especially one with a makeshift machete. "My name's Leigh," she said. "What's yours?"
"Bernice," the other woman said shakily. "Bernice Landers."
"I'm Doctor Leigh Presley. Just like Elvis, except I don't sing." The joke was stupid, terrible, but Bernice laughed. Right now, the worst comedian in the world would probably knock them dead. "I have a lab, it's not far away. Just a couple of blocks. It's got a shielded power supply, some food, an Internet connection. We can find out--" She'd said something wrong there, Bernice had tensed up again.
"No Internet," she said. "No Internet, no phone, no fucking signals. Don't you get it? They're not stupid, Leigh. They're not fucking zombies." Bernice probably didn't even realize she closing in on Leigh, holding the paper-cutter like a sword. She wasn't responding to a literal threat but to the menace Leigh's statement represented. "They're monitoring the phone lines, the access points. Sign onto a computer, and you're sending a signal to them saying, 'Here I am, come and find me!' Don't touch the phones. Don't send a message. They're listening." Bernice was almost in grabbing distance, now. Leigh didn't want to hurt her, but she was worried that she might not have a choice. "Do. You. FUCKING. Understand?"
"I understand, Bernice," Leigh said, aware that her life depended on conveying that point. "We won't use the Internet. I promise. We'll just go to the lab for now. It's a safe place. It has food. It's not on the power grid, using the electricity won't tell anyone where we are. We can hide there for a while. Okay?"
Bernice relaxed imperceptibly. "Okay," she said. She turned to leave, and took a step back so suddenly that she almost impaled herself on Leigh's scissors. Someone else was in the building with them.
Leigh hadn't seen him. She'd been too intent on Bernice, and not just emotionally. Bernice made a better door than she did a window, as Mom always said. (Leigh thought of her mom, in a nursing home in Santa Clara. The need to call her, to find out if she was safe, was suddenly like a physical weight in Leigh's mind. She tried to let it go.) The man was standing near the window, and the fading sunlight gleamed off his body. He was chrome, all over, like the Silver Surfer or the T-1000. For just a moment, the orange light caught his face perfectly, and Leigh would remember it for the rest of her life. He was smiling. Not smugly, or sadistically. He wasn't smiling because he'd found two women to...convert, or hunt, or whatever they did. He was smiling because he was happy. It was a perfect, beatific smile, the kind you'd imagine a saint to have. Somehow, it was the most terrifying thing Leigh had ever seen.
He turned to look at them, and Leigh could tell by the way he looked right at the two of them that he could see them perfectly. Another reason why they'd cut the power, she thought, her mind racing. If they didn't need the light, then it gave them an advantage to cut out the electricity. Humans looked for light, just like they looked for food and shelter and the company of other humans. These things were herding them, maneuvering them for collection. For conversion.
He started moving towards them. He was fast. He must have just come in when Bernice turned, because he didn't hesitate at all when he was running towards them. Neither woman had time to strategize, flight-or-fight instincts took over, and fighting was out of the question. They both just ran. He was faster, but he seemed uncertain as to which of them to pursue. That made sense, if he was just trying to convert as many people as possible. He wouldn't care if he got her instead of Bernice, or vice versa, they were equal priority targets. Still, Leigh kept running, trying to put as much distance between herself and Bernice as she was between herself and the silvery man. If they were equal priority targets, he'd go after whoever he thought was easier to catch. Leigh hated herself for being cold-blooded like this, but she knew that her best chance of escape was to be a less obvious target than Bernice.
In her memories, the flight was a confused, blurring montage of half-seen objects in deepening shadow, of a headlong dash through uncertain terrain, her own heartbeat so loud in her ears that she couldn't tell if he was following her or not. She fled deeper into the darkened maze of the office at first, just to put some distance between herself and her pursuer, but after a few minutes of running, she made a long, wide loop back around towards the double doors of the entrance. She didn't try to hide. If he could see in the dark, there wasn't much of a point. And if he had good hearing as well...Leigh knew she must be panting like a dog. Hiding wasn't an option. Running was. She hoped Bernice had the same idea. If it was her or Bernice, she'd rather it be her, but she hoped they could both escape.
She made it out the door, praying silently that there wasn't another shiny silver person waiting out there, but whatever these things were, they didn't appear to hunt in packs. Leigh was already sketching out hypotheses as to their behavior, wondering how to test them without getting herself converted, when a crash of glass from above made her look up. Bernice came hurtling out of one of the windows on the second floor, her arms in front of her face to protect her from the broken glass, obviously jumping, rather than being pushed. Leigh watched her fall for what seemed like forever, but it couldn't have been more than a second or two. Bernice's trajectory seemed pre-ordained. Leigh could tell before she even landed that Bernice was going to break her left leg when she hit. The sharp crack of bone just seemed to be a confirmation of her projections. Above, the silver man was framed in the window for a long moment, before he turned and headed back into the darkness of the building.
Leigh rushed to where Bernice had landed. She knew she didn't have long before the silver man came after them; thankfully, he seemed to want to take the long way. Leigh wasn't sure if she could outdistance him helping a wounded woman, not even with the headstart. But she'd been cold-blooded enough for one day. She reached out a hand for the mewling, screaming woman, but as Bernice flopped onto her back, Leigh recoiled. Amongst the cuts and scrapes, a bright streak of gleaming, liquid silver ran down Bernice's face, like she'd been splashed with mercury. He'd touched her. He'd touched her, just before she jumped out the window. 'It's passed on by touch', Bernice had said. And now they'd touched her. Leigh found herself backing away.
"...no..." Bernice muttered, her voice wavery with pain and with something else, too, something that scared Leigh with how out of place it was. The silver was flowing over her face like it really was mercury, and Bernice was moaning with...oh, god, was that...no, it couldn't have been. Leigh was imagining things, going crazy with fear.
Bernice dragged herself along the sidewalk to the street, leaned down to the sewer grate. She started to nuzzle it. The moans continued. Leigh wasn't imagining it. Bernice was licking a sewer grate, and it was turning her on.
Then she realized Leigh wasn't licking it. She was touching it to the silver liquid. The silver was eating the metal of the grate, absorbing it. It didn't take long, either. After just a few seconds, the grate was gone, and the silver had covered all of Bernice's head and neck, and most of her shoulders. She sat up and looked at Leigh, but there was no recognition in her silver eyes. Her mouth hung open, and the expression on her face was one of blank, vacant pleasure, that same mindless smile the other one had worn. She hauled herself to her feet and limped forward, favoring her broken leg heavily but walking nonetheless. Leigh moved back faster, but all Bernice had eyes for was the streetlight on the corner.
Leigh wanted to run, but the scientist in her needed to stay just a moment longer. She was dividing her attention between Bernice and the entrance to the building, the other silver man hadn't come out yet, she was alright for a bit longer, and she was sure she needed to see this. Know your enemy, Leigh thought. She had to know how Bernice was changing, what she was changing into.
It happened startlingly quick. The streetlight just seemed to sag, to slowly melt down as Bernice rubbed her body against it. She was grunting now in animal pleasure, as though the broken leg wasn't even there. She was only interested in perpetuating her transformation. Leigh made a note of that. It could be important. Finally, her body completely coated with silver, still slumped on the sidewalk, she looked up at Leigh. Despite the broken leg, Bernice was smiling like a saint. "do not be afraid," she said, in a voice with no inflection, no emotion, toneless in a way that no human being could manage. "it is all for the best."
Leigh kept backing away. She fought the urge to turn and sprint for her lab. These things could talk, even if they only did so when they couldn't catch their prey with footspeed. The broken leg slowed it down, she could keep her distance from it and try to find out what it wanted, where these things had come from, why--
The thing that had been Bernice stood up. Leigh heard a series of popping noises as the shattered leg straightened itself. It took a step, then another. Leigh turned and sprinted for her lab.
She got a good head start while it was still healing the leg. It must have gone more than skin-deep then, if it had healed a broken bone well enough to walk on within seconds. It was actually interacting with the body on a cellular level. Leigh was amazed at the way her mind continued to analyze all these disparate data points even while she was running for her life, but she'd always been told it was a character flaw of hers. Too mechanical, not emotional enough, she'd heard it her whole life. Too much brain, not enough heart. Her boyfriend had said it, when they'd broken up, when he'd told her it was the lab or him, and realized that for her, it wasn't even a choice. He'd called her a "fucking robot" on his way out the door. The irony wasn't lost on Leigh at the moment. She wondered if he was a fucking robot right now.
It was putting on speed, she could hear it behind her as they raced down the sidewalk. She ran headlong across streets, not worried even a little about oncoming traffic. Benefits of the end of the world, she thought, her detachment cracking a little. It didn't crack enough that she forgot to pull out her remote control and signal the door to begin opening while she was still half a block away. She held the 'open' button down as the lab came into view, didn't let up on it until she saw the door sliding up to receive her. She could hear the footsteps closing in, but they weren't quite close enough. She could tell she was going to make it.
She felt as much as heard it jump behind her. It made one last leap for her, she heard it fall to the pavement just short of her as she put on one last burst of speed, and she prayed to God she was just imagining the sensations of a fingertip brushing her ankle as she raced through the door and stabbed frantically at the 'close' button. It got back up, but the door was designed to close quicker than it opened, and Leigh activated the security systems with a last frantic tap. She sank to the floor, dropping the scissors she hadn't even noticed she was still carrying, feeling the sweat soak into her clothes and drip down her body as she finally relaxed and let the adrenaline wind down. Putting a lab like this in a major city, even a nice neighborhood of a major city, required a bit more of a security system than ADT. She couldn't hear through the foot-thick steel, but she imagined it touching the electrified door and smiled grimly.
First things first. She looked behind her at her ankle where she'd thought the thing had touched her. There was nothing. Not even a speck of silver. Leigh breathed a long, panting sigh of relief. She was safe.
'No Internet. No phone, no fucking signals.' Leigh couldn't let anyone know she was here, not without letting everyone know she was here. Of course, Bernice 2.0 was probably trotting back to let them know exactly that anyway, but it was better to be safe than sorry. Besides, who was Leigh going to tell? She'd seen it herself. Conversion in the presence of a ready supply of metal took less than a minute. The "infection" was passed along by touch, but it was passed along geometrically. Every converted human was capable of converting another human. One became two became four became eight...they'd had nine hours, now, probably more. By this point, the entire population of North America could have been coated in chrome.