Read by Annalie Wilson
Jen was the first person I knew who caught the virus. Of course, that’s not strictly true. On my way to work that morning, I probably passed a couple of people in the street who had it, probably shared a tube carriage with some of the early victims. But Jen was the first person I know had it for sure.
I didn’t pick up on it at first. She was acting perfectly normally. Late to work, as ever, sitting down opposite me, turning her computer on as she set her cup of Pret a Manger coffee and her croissant down at her desk. She ate the croissant as she always did, picking it apart into smaller pieces with her fingers and licking the flakes of pastry of the end.
“So have you seen it?” she said.
I looked up from my desk, annoyed. Jen is – was – a person with a heart of gold, but she never seemed to register anyone else’s priorities. As far as she was concerned, the world sprung into life when she walked into the room, and froze when she walked out again. Of course, these days, I think the same thing – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
“Seen what?” I asked.
“It’s on YouTube,” she said. “You’ve got to see it.”
As she spoke, an email pinged into my inbox. The subject heading was “You’ve got to see it!” It was from David, who sits at the far end of the office. All it consisted of was a link to a YouTube video. I clicked on it and then – I don’t know what it was. Instinct, I suppose. I closed it before the video could start.
“Go on,” said Jen, getting up and walking around to look at my monitor.
I waved her away without looking up.
“I’m busy,” I said.
“Go on,” she repeated. “You’ve got to see it.”
“What is it, then?”
I looked up at her and just for a moment – almost so quickly you couldn’t have made it out – an odd expression came across her face. The sort I’d never seen her give anyone before, something totally out of character for her. Something artful and sly, but at the same time lacking any sort of personality. The expression of a predatory animal, that’s what it was like. Something intelligent, but not quite conscious. Not quite human.
“I need to know what it is before I look at it,” I said. “A year or so ago someone sent me something really horrible. I couldn’t get it out of my mind for ages.”
That much, at least, was true.
She shrugged. “You’ll see it,” she said. “You’ve got to see it.”
She didn’t bother me after that, and I tried to put it out of my mind. I wondered if I’d imagined that look on her face. It’s true I have an imagination, and that’s probably why the video my friend sent me before – and it was really terrible, the sort of thing you hear about on the news – that’s probably why it affected me so badly. I tried everything to get it out of my mind, but that just seemed to make it worse. I ended up having to see someone about it and learn how to distract myself from it.
It was an hour or so before work ended that the emails started to come. Some of them were from other people in the office, others from my friends outside work. One, I saw, was from my mother. I began to wonder if the video was actually a computer virus, that if you clicked on the link it spammed all your friends, too. I ended the day by dumping all the emails in the trash, and left the office early.
I was distracted and irritable on the tube home. I couldn’t concentrate on my book, and kept reading the headlines on other people’s newspapers over their shoulders. It’s a bad habit, I know, but sometimes I can’t help myself. I got several cold glances and significant coughs in return. It was just a stop or two away from mine that a boy sat down next to me, and started watching something on his iPhone. He seemed to clock me straight away, and turned to me with a smile.
“Have you seen it?” he asked.
“This,” he said, waving the device at me. He had paused the image, and I caught a glimpse of it. It looked like a dusty red landscape, with a dark figure standing in the middle of it. It’s the oddest thing, but I got the impression that the man – or whatever it was – was looking back out at me.
“You’ve got to see it.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I think this is my stop.”
The boy’s smile didn’t waver. I got up and hurried off the train.
I don’t know why I turned back as the train pulled out, and I’m not sure if it was real, but this is what I thought I saw:
Everyone in the tube carriage had frozen. Their expressions and gestures were fixed, as if the carriages were full of waxworks or shop window dummies, being carted off down the tunnel as the train carried on with its journey.
I don’t have a TV. I don’t want you to think – I’ll put that another way. People used to think that it was because I was a snob, or affected, or self-consciously intellectual. Not the case. Not the case at all. To cut a long story short, when I split up with my last boyfriend, he kept the TV and I always meant to get one but didn’t.
So I don’t know if the video was on the news that night or not. I am pretty sure, though, that this was the first night I was watched. I was woken up by the sound of footsteps on the gravel path outside my house in the small hours. I got out of bed, and crept over to the window, trying to peer around the edge of the blind without being spotted.
It was Jen. I couldn’t make out her features, but I was sure it was her. Her hair was just as it usually is, and it looked like she was dressed in her clothes from earlier. I was about to throw the window open and shout down to her, to check she wasn’t in some sort of trouble, when I remembered that I hadn’t ever given her my address. She knew vaguely the part of town I lived in, but that was it.
Still, I know I should have offered her help. I reckon now that she was already long gone by that point, but at the time – I can’t make any excuses for what I did next, or even explain it. What I did was this: I tiptoed down to the kitchen, picked out the big carving knife from the magnetic rack along the wall, crept back up to bed, and put it underneath my pillow.
The office was quiet the next morning. I got a strange feeling when I walked in – the kind you get when everyone in the room was talking about you just a second ago. But they were all sitting and staring at their terminals. I sat down at my desk and turned my computer on.
“Have you seen it yet?” asked Jen. She was in early for a change. If she was at all tired from her midnight visit to my house, it didn’t show. She looked brighter than ever, in fact.
“Seen what?” I asked, playing for time.
“You know,” she said. “The video.”
“Oh, that,” I lied, “of course.”
She smiled at me. “No you haven’t.”
My telephone rang, and I picked it up.
“What if,” said the voice at the other end, “they were all wrong?”
“Slow down, Tim,” I replied. Tim is – was – my ex-boyfriend. He worked for the astrophysics group at Imperial. His habit of starting conversations halfway though is one of the many reasons we split up.
“Sarah,” he said, sounding worried, “that is you, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Of course it is.”
“I’ve been at a conference in Florida,” he replied. “I didn’t get back till late last night. So I didn’t see it.”
“Yes, yes,” he said, impatiently. “The video. And what I was wondering is, what if they were all wrong? SETI and people like that. Pointing their radio telescopes at the sky and expecting contact to come that way. Ray Norris worked out that they might be a million – a billion years ahead of us. What if they were able to send probes – ”
“Tim,” I said, “you’re losing me.” Though actually I was hooked.
“Probes that could think and feel. They could learn all about us, then access the web – ”
There was a click and the line went dead. I tried phoning back, but there was no answer. My computer pinged, and I looked at the screen. I had 50 unread emails, all with the same subject line:
“You’ve got to see it!”
I made my excuses and left work early. I spent the rest of the day at home, trying to call people I knew. No one picked up. It was only when dusk fell, and I started to think about cooking something for myself, that I realised someone had been into my house and taken away every single knife.
You look like humans. You talk and you act like them. But you are not humans. You are not conscious in the same way I am. You do not have an inner life in the same way I do. Your intelligence is simultaneously above and below my own. It all started with the video, that much I know. I don’t know if Tim was right, if it really was sent by something else, something whose home is far, far away. There is no way of finding out. Not now.
All I know is that the end is near. I know this, because the video has now gone from the internet. You’re not trying to get me to watch it any more. You’ve given up. I’ve even tried talking to you about it, but you look at me as if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe you don’t. Maybe the next phase begins with your memory being wiped. And if it’s too late to become one of you – well, I can guess what happens next.
I saw some of you outside my window last night. You were there; and you. I know you’ll be back tonight. I don’t know if you have a word for kindness. I’m sure you can say it, but I’m not sure you understand what it means. But, on the off chance that you do: please be kind when my time comes. Please, please be kind.
Viral by Niall Boyce was read by Annalie Wilson at the Liars' League Fear & Loathing event on Tuesday 11th October 2011, at the Phoenix, Cavendish Square, London.
Niall Boyce is a full-time writer and editor. He has written numerous reviews and essays, and appeared on BBC Radio. He has also contributed short stories to Doctor Who and Bernice Summerfield. His e-serial, Veronica Britton: Chronic Detective, is published by Proxima Books and available on Amazon. He tweets at @NPBoyce.