The God Virus

By Justin R. Smith

Sci-Fi, Magical realism, Romance, Paranormal

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286
12 mins

Part I. Inception

Chapter 1

The gentle rocking reminded him of a time, years ago, when he’d slept in the boat while his father and sister had fished for striped bass off Tumbler Island — a time he hadn’t felt trapped.
A light blinded him.
It was as if someone held a flashlight against his eyes. When he opened them, he was alone again in a dark bedroom.
He tried to go back to sleep.
Light flared.
When he opened his eyes this time, he found himself in a grassy meadow filled with wildflowers under a clear blue sky. He clapped his hands over his eyes. When he opened them again, he was alone again in his dark bedroom.
What’s happening? Could it be a side effect of that pill?
Plagued by suicidal thoughts, Derek had responded to an ad in the paper to participate in a clinical trial for Seshadri-Clarke Pharmaceuticals. And, a few hours ago, a man named Harry Pembroke had given him an “investigational drug” — a small red pill — to combat depression.
“What have you got to lose?” Pembroke had said. “This drug is guaranteed safe. The worst that can happen is nothing.”
That’s what happened. Absolutely nothing.
He drifted off to sleep again. The fluttering sensation returned, accompanied by a feeling he was bursting out of his skin like an overcooked sausage. A vivid sensation of flipping end-over-end in bed followed.
“I’m going to sue Seshadri-Clarke and Pembroke,” he growled, leaping out of the bed.
A wonderful feeling of well-being suffused his body, a sense of being lighter than air. At the same time, he felt more awake than he had ever been in his life.
I never had a lucid dream before. It’s as if I woke up after spending my entire life in a drugged stupor. Maybe the pill really had some effect.
There was no particular reason for him to turn around, but he did. And he saw himself lying in bed.
How can I be standing here and lying in bed at the same time? Am I dead?
Then he noticed the sleeping figure’s chest smoothly rising and falling.
This is the most bizarre thing that has ever happened to me.
He carefully looked around his bedroom. His sleeping body glowed slightly, flickered actually, like a candle. The glow was a color not on any palette he had ever seen — an unnatural color, a color with no name.
Flickering with the same unnatural color, his black and white tabby, Norton, raised its head and stared at him, silently meowing.
I’m losing my mind. Will my life ever be normal again?
The bedroom looked the same as always but its walls seemed slightly transparent. Strange shadows moved through the air like ghostly presences and the air itself gave off a faint glow. He moved toward the door and tried to open it but his partially transparent hand passed through the handle.
Pembroke better be able to fix this.
***
With no transition, Derek found himself in an ornate study, floating near the ceiling. Books lined the walls and Pembroke sat behind a large cluttered desk, apparently arguing with a heavyset man in a suit who sat across from him. Solid objects were slightly transparent, and the two men flickered with the unearthly light he’d seen earlier.
A herd of bison — transparent almost to the point of invisibility — slowly strolled through the room, the walls, and the people in it, completely unaware of them. Small transparent shapes or creatures winked in and out of existence — suspended in mid-air.
Or mid-whatever this is. It’s as if I’m swimming in a ghostly ocean teeming with life.
Besides softly glowing, the “ocean” around him seemed to radiate energy or encouragement. It was as if the air itself was alive and conscious, and aware of Derek’s presence.
It was so much more pleasant than the one time he’d been in the actual ocean, when his boat capsized off the Burnt Island Light, and he’d almost froze to death.
He looked at Pembroke.
I can hear them. But their lip-movements don’t match their words.
“Ignorant thug,” Pembroke said, without moving his lips. The ignorant thug didn’t react — as if he hadn’t heard Pembroke.
Derek moved toward the men and passed his arm through them.
“Cold,” the heavyset man said, without moving his lips. He rubbed his hands together.
“The people I work for want their money,” he continued — his lip-movements completely out of sync with his words. “They are losing patience.”
“Prescription drugs cost more than heroin or cocaine,” Pembroke replied. “And Americans spend billions each year on antidepressants. I’ll pay the people you work for with interest — even the rates they charge.”
“Seshadri-Clarke owns you,” the other man said.
With the kind of certainty found in dreams, Derek knew this man’s name was Maxim Baranov.
“That’s the beauty of this scheme,” Pembroke replied. “I built a lab in my house and bought my own animals. I even bought my own DNA sequencer. My greatest triumph, and Seshadri-Clarke is completely cut out of it.”
“Yes,” Baranov replied, “With our twenty million.”
“I’m barred from getting research grants,” Pembroke said. “And I can’t use Seshadri-Clarke facilities. I thought I explained the time-frame…”
“Excuse me,” Baranov interrupted, pulling out a cell phone.
Derek hadn’t heard it ring. In fact the only thing he could hear was the odd conversation.
“He’s right here,” Baranov said into the phone. “Of course I can speak freely in front of him. He doesn’t know a word of Russian.”
He’s speaking Russian? I hear him speaking English.
“I think we should give him more time,” Baranov said. Then, without moving his lips, added, “Not paid to think? Asshole.”
“Should it look like an accident?” Baranov continued. “No? OK.”
“They want to invest in your drug,” Baranov said, putting the phone away. “But I must take pictures of your lab.”
“Good. I tried to explain the time-frame involved in developing a new drug.” “As if you apes would know lab equipment if it bit you,” Pembroke replied, saying both sentences simultaneously. Derek had no trouble telling them apart, but Baranov didn’t react to the second one.
“It’s in the basement,” Pembroke said, standing and walking to the door.
When Pembroke had his back to him, Baranov pulled out a pistol and noiselessly shot him twice in the head, sending geysers of … material against the woodwork.
It was like a silent movie.
Carefully sidestepping Pembroke’s corpse, Baranov left, wistfully muttering, “Our own Bugsy Siegal. Or will I be the Bugsy Siegal?”
Oddly, this didn’t startle Derek in the least. He’d felt the murder coming, the way one feels a storm brewing. The air’s faint glow briefly intensified around Derek and radiated feelings of affection and protectiveness. A hug?
***
Derek felt a sickening sensation of falling and found himself back in bed, awake and relieved.
He fell asleep again and had vague but intense dreams of his body changing — as if he’d begun to subtly mutate into something … alien.
Derek got up.
He looked around his studio apartment, with its off-white walls holding the Salvador Dali poster Persistence of Memory, its bookcase separating the kitchen area from the table he used as a computer desk.
He made coffee, fed Norton, and cleaned the cat’s litter box.
Pembroke had given him a notebook to record any “unusual experiences.” Looking at the Seshadri-Clarke logo on the notebook, Derek wondered whether Mr. Pembroke had lied to him about the drug trial.
He thought back to when he’d signed up for the program, two days ago. He’d met Pembroke in his office at Seshadri-Clarke Pharmaceuticals — where he was the chief neurochemist, according to the secretary. That had seemed legit. Then he’d spent at least thirty minutes signing a stack of legal papers: nondisclosure forms, releases of liability, etc. Pembroke had told him this project was secret and he wasn’t to discuss it with anyone, including other Seshadri-Clarke employees.
Derek Evans was a muscular, six-foot-four twenty-four year old with brown hair and eyes, from the lobster-fishing village of Boothbay Harbor, Maine. He’d been an A-student who loved science-fiction, science fairs, and complex, story-driven computer games like Dreamfall, Gone Home, and Life is Strange. He was so much of a nerd he’d resisted efforts to recruit him for his high school’s football team. He couldn’t remember the team’s name.
At the age of seventeen, Derek had done the unheard-of: he won a special scholarship to New York University complete with full living expenses. The Boothbay Observer even published an article about him with his picture.
He’d reacted to the city’s sensory overload like a frightened turtle: he’d pulled in his head and spent every waking moment of his time studying.
At times he yearned for the tranquility of home, the silence as he glided under sail through misty coves like a ghost, occasionally startling harbor seals, cormorants, and dolphins.
When he’d gone home on visits, though, he’d felt trapped. Then, his nostalgia for New York was keener than anything he’d ever felt for home. The city was the battlefield where he’d build his future, and home was a sleepy backwater cutting him off from it. His sister’s talk of getting her own lobster boat seemed parochial.
It had been the same when they’d visited him, last year. His sister, Wendy, had complained that she couldn’t hear the sea, that New York even smelled “all wrong.” She’d paced like a caged tiger.
His father had said his apartment was more a lair than a home, and his mother had questioned how he could ever be happy there.
He typed an account of last night’s dream into a computer diary; the paperwork could wait.
“Norton,” he muttered as the cat walked in front of the computer screen while he worked, blocking his view. Cynthia had given him Norton three weeks ago — just before telling him they needed a “vacation” from each other. A consolation prize?
He’d met her when she’d accosted him on the street and invited him to a party. That had struck him as odd but, perhaps, that was how things were done in the Big City. And, after a fling that had lasted a week, Cynthia had cut him off.
He shaved, showered and dressed. After spending fifteen minutes working on an inventory system for the new game, A mind forever voyaging, he realized he’d be late to work.
Maybe I’ll be able to win Cynthia back. No — I know I’ll win her back
Last night’s dream was one he wished he could have a hundred times more. He’d never be trapped again.

Chapter 2

Derek briefly considered calling in sick because his nose ran, and he had a scratchy throat. Pembroke had mentioned he might experience symptoms like that and to avoid contact with others if it happened.
He rejected the idea.
The company where he worked had a new owner and today there would be a meeting with their new boss. Calling in sick was not an option.
After saying goodbye to Norton, Derek left for work. He felt sorry for the kitten, alone all day in a little Manhattan apartment, but what could he do?
Slush still covered west 76th street after the snowfall two days ago. Four story brownstone apartment buildings lined the street with snow-covered staircases up to their front entrances. Derek walked to the 72nd street subway station, bought a paper at the newsstand, and took a train downtown.
Shoved against nameless strangers more tightly than the most passionate lover’s embrace, Derek spent fifteen minutes in the train.
He got off at 42nd street — near the park around the New York Public Library’s main branch, with its ornate columns and concrete lions. A cart selling roasted chestnuts gave off an acrid and unpleasant aroma. He’d never understood the allure of chestnuts roasting over an open fire.
Derek entered the narrow concrete canyon of 41st street.
He fought his way through the rush-hour crush of people and arrived at 6th Avenue.
He worked at Enigmatic Adventures, a company that made games for the PC, Xbox, and recently, IOS- and Android-based cell phones. It was located on the third and fourth floors of a five-story apartment building incongruously sandwiched between high-rise office towers. An odd arrangement: since the offices had once been apartments, both floors had working kitchens and bathrooms with bathtubs.
Humming Flight of the Bumblebee, Derek got off the elevator on the third floor and went directly to the kitchen for some coffee. Alessandra Giancana — or Allie G, as people called her — was already there.
She was a petite blond with an olive complexion in a tweed skirt and jacket whom Derek found attractive, if intimidating — a streetwise New York woman who freely used profanity and said things like, “Men are chickenshit.”
Does she mean me? he’d wondered.
A jagged scar on her right jaw-line marred her otherwise-beautiful face. She was a few years older than Derek and higher up in the company: the acting head of Art and Animation.
“Don’t even think about it, kid,” his then-supervisor, Edwin Malloy had said. “She’s light-years out of your league.”
Although he’d had lunch with her a few times in the office kitchen, he’d never had had the nerve to ask her out on a date.
“Jesus H Christ, Maniac,” Allie said — repeating her running joke about his being from Maine. “You’re smiling. Something new in your life? Or someone? Other than … Cynthia?”
“I took an experimental new drug. An antidepressant.”
“Where can I get some?”
“It’s not ready for prime time,” Derek said. “I had dreams that were off the end of the weirdness scale.”
“Is it legal?”
“It’s from Seshadri-Clarke Pharmaceuticals. And it gave me a fantastic idea for a game.”
Derek launched into an animated account of his dream, and Allie agreed that it would make a good game.
Glenn Brown, the Network manager joined them. He was a bald, heavyset man with a terrible cough and gravelly voice who wore a black tee shirt with “31337” on its front. He imagined himself to be a super-hacker and would make mysterious references to “hacking the CIA and the NSA,” saying “I can’t really talk about it.”
Then he’d talk about it.
Glenn had a bad smell, and Derek suspected his relationship with soap and water was tenuous at best.
They chatted about the upcoming meeting at 10.
“Maybe they’ll hire a replacement for your supervisor,” Allie said.
Since Roger Matthews had left, Derek had been the only person in Unreal Gameplay Programming.
Finally, they went back to their cubicles. Derek’s had a framed picture of Cynthia, a potted coleus and his workstation — all under soul-sucking white fluorescent lights.
A call to Pembroke’s office went to voice-mail.
Derek did a web search on Bugsy Siegal and found a Wikipedia article that detailed Bugsy’s murders, rackets, and how he had finally been murdered himself. None of it fit with what he’d experienced last night.
***
The first thing Derek noticed about the meeting was how empty the room was: it was just him and Allie.
Joel Mantell joined them sitting at the head of the table. He was a thirty-something, deeply tanned man in a charcoal pinstripe suit. He had short, curly brown hair that made his head look like a brush and a toothpick in his mouth.
He began by assuring Derek and Allie that their jobs were safe. As he talked, the toothpick moved around his mouth, and Derek wondered whether he’d swallow it.
“Where is everyone?” Allie asked. “Ed and Mike and the others? The Story Development team. We should wait for them.”
“They won’t be coming.”
“How can we have a meeting without them?” Allie said.
“We’re moving in a bold new direction, and I hope you can share my vision for the future.”
“OK,” Derek said.
“No more ‘girlie games’ and cell-phone puzzles. We’ll be doing Galactic Marines. The story-lines will write themselves: combat, combat, combat. Robots versus humans, aliens versus robots, etc. If any writing is needed, I’ll do it myself.”
Derek pitched his idea for a game.
“This is the opportunity to make something clear,” Mantell said. “I’m the idea-man. Grand Theft Auto Manhattan sounds too complex story-wise. And you need realistic-looking faces with facial expressions.”
“Animated faces are our specialty,” Allie said.
“Yeah, but how quickly?” Mantell said. “Robots are boxes with arms and legs. You can crank them out in no time. And I’m cutting your department to the bone.”
“Pardon my French, Mr. Mantell,” Allie said. “But how the fuck can we develop games with no staff?”
“I’m hoping you can understand my overriding vision for the company. This is going to be a lean mean operation. You two are going to be single-person departments.”
“More mean than lean,” Allie muttered.
They broke for lunch.
***
As he headed for the elevator, Mr. Mantell stopped by the secretary, Ms. Finkel, and told her, “Anyone calls for me, tell em I went out to get laid.”
“Sure about that?” Ms. Finkel replied.
“Just do it.”
“OK,” Ms. Finkel replied, to his back.
“What if your wife calls?” she added, but Mr. Mantell was already in the elevator.
As Derek headed toward the elevator, Ms. Finkel pointed him out to a man waiting beside her desk. He was a tired-looking, gray-haired man in a wrinkled blue suit.
“Derek Evans?” he asked.
“Yes.”
“May I speak with you in private?”
“OK.”
They went back to the conference room Derek had just left, and the man showed Derek his golden shield and ID.
“I’m Detective Roberts. Manhattan South.”
“Detective?” Derek said with a sinking feeling.
“Are you acquainted with a man named Harry Pembroke?”
“Yes, I’m in a drug study. He ran it.”
“We found your contact information among his papers.”
“Found?” Derek said. “Did something happen to him?”
“Someone murdered him.”
“What?” Derek gasped — almost fainting, thinking Last night happened?
“How well did you know him?”
“I only met him twice, in his office. I responded to an ad in the Times.”
“Tell me about those meetings,” Detective Roberts said.
“The first time, I filled out a bunch of legal forms. The second time, I took a pill he gave me.”
“That’s it?”
Derek nodded.
“Out of curiosity, what was the drug study for?” Detective Roberts said.
“An antidepressant.”
“Did it work?” Detective Roberts asked, smiling.
“Yeah, I think so.”
Detective Roberts shook Derek’s hand, thanked him, and gave him a business card.
As he began to leave, Detective Roberts paused and said, “Oh, I have to ask. Where were you 11 PM last night?”
“I was in bed, sleeping.”
***
Now that Mr. Matthews would not be replaced, Derek decided to move into his supervisor’s former office. For one thing, it was a real office and not a cubical. It even had a window.
After transferring his files to Mr. Matthews’s server and his meager possessions to his new desk, Derek sat and stared out the window. A wino urinated into the gutter below, and a cop nudged him to move along.
He tried to make sense of what had happened last night.
What else did he have to do? The projects he’d been working on were canceled.
He did a web-search on lucid dreams and out-of-body experiences, but nothing leaped out at him. Certain hallucinogens like ketamine, LSD and DMT could trigger them.
Their descriptions didn’t match what he’d experienced, especially the feeling of being super-awake. His dream had more in common with near-death experiences, although he hadn’t seen any “tunnel of light.”
“Shit!” Allie said, startling him out of his seat. “Worst fucking day I’ve had at this chickenshit company. That suppurating pustule in a suit is running us straight into the ground.”
Derek looked up at her.
“I had to fire everyone else in my department,” she continued. “People older than me, with kids in college. Those poor bastards! They put everything they had into this shitty little company! We’re going to Maxwells. Wanna come?”
“Sure.”
***
They all crowded into Maxwell’s Bar and Grill, a cramped and steamy pub across the street from the office.
Derek got a beer and Allie a glass of red wine.
“The dream I was telling you about?” Derek said to Allie.
“You can kiss that game goodbye,” she muttered, chugging her wine and ordering another. “I knew the company had problems, but A mind forever voyaging would’ve have been a blockbuster. We’re just hamsters on a wheel, running as fast as we can and getting nowhere.”
She threw back her second glass of wine.
“It wasn’t a dream. The guy I met at Seshadri-Clarke was murdered last night.”
“Huh?” Allie said.
“That guy talking to me at the office was a homicide cop.”
“No shit! Did it happen like in your dream?”
“I didn’t have the nerve to ask.”
“Well that’s creepy as hell,” she said.



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