(Fiction) Signs

Clouds over trailer park painting

An alarm blared in short, piercing tones.

Nio sat stirring the lukewarm coffee and peering out the windows of the dim office for the stout Agent Quinn, who was no doubt rushing to her location. Next to the door was a decade-old public service poster urging everyone to get their annual vaccine. It dated from the early days of the contagion and was full of implicit threats. Unlike the comparable posters from a century before, which urged discretion—Loose Lips Sink Ships!—this announcement suggested it was better to report on the neighbors:

SILENCE SPREADS DISEASE!

REPORT ALL CASES TO YOUR

MINNESOTA CMC OFFICE

Despite the panic, the zombie apocalypse had never come. Out of a global population of just over nine billion, it was estimated that no more than fifty thousand had died from the “zombie” virus, or 0.0005%. And yet, the catastrophe was genuine. Five times as many people died from senseless panic: riots, looting, and mob lynchings of those suspected of being infected—or even of hiding those that were. In a handful of now-famous court cases in Spain and the US, individuals filmed leading mobs that broke forcefully into homes were either acquitted or left with light sentences, particularly if they were women, on grounds that they were acting “in self defense.”

The door at the back of the office opened and an Indian man appeared.

“What the hell?” he yelled at Nio, who sat drinking bad coffee. “I thought the building was on fire! Are you fucking crazy lady?”

“Debatable,” she said, taking another sip.

“You think that’s funny?” He strode around the counter like he intended to berate her.

Quinn burst through the front door. He looked half asleep. He wore nothing but a T-shirt and boxers. Both his legs were missing below the knee. In place of bare feet were a pair of studded rubber soles, each attached to a 3D titanium lattice in the rounded shape of a human leg. His phone was in his hand. It was also emitting an alarm, similar to that from the bracelet but out of phase with it, and the two together were quadruply annoying. He turned them off with a few quick taps.

“Thank you, sir,” Quinn said to the manager. “I’ll take it from here. I apologize for the inconvenience.”

The man looked back and forth between them. He was furious, but Quinn’s size was putting a damper on his anger. “Are you going to let her get away with this?”

Quinn stood straight in front of him. “I apologize,” he repeated softly. “Everything’s under control. Thank you.”

The man looked flummoxed. In a moment, he disappeared again through the back door.

“Must be nice being tall,” Nio said.

Agent Quinn collapsed into a chair and rubbed his face. He yawned. “Jesus,” he said in the middle of it. “What the hell are you doing?”

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“And so you wanted to make sure no one else could?”

“I wanted to see the case files.”

“So knock.”

“I did. Three times.”

“So you woke up the entire motel?”

She shrugged as if to say “well, it worked.” She glanced involuntarily at his legs before standing up and walking to the door.

Quinn followed her out the door. “Go ahead,” he said as they climbed the stairs.

“Go ahead what?”

“Ask.”

“It’s your business,” she said. “So can I get it or not?”

Quinn took out his key card and unlocked his room. The box was on the table. A fancy folding suitcase hung from the bathroom door. Nio didn’t have a key, so she had propped open her door with the security latch. Quinn handed her the box and she walked in her socks back to her room.

“Thanks,” she said.

He only shook his head and slammed the door.

Nio sat cross-legged on the bed and opened the remnants of a life, the last pieces of a man who had for all intents and purposes been a brother. The FBI had been diligent if uninspired in their investigation, or so it seemed from the paper trail. They had talked to his colleagues. They had interviewed his graduate students. They’d read any of his communications they could get their hands on. They even pulled his reading list from the Institute’s library, as well as from nearby Princeton University Library. To the casual observer, it all made sense. There were seminal papers on quantum field theory, graduate texts on gauge theory, even a transcript of symposium titled Ion Qubit Exchange Anomalies Under Synchronous-2 and Asynchronous-7 Correspondence Models.

But scattered randomly among the arcane treatises on high-energy physics and advanced geometry was the odd topical outlier, including several funny-sounding papers by a Danish social psychologist named Viktor Bruno. Although she could see the titles—one was called The Oscillations of Reality—none of the texts had been included. She turned on the TV again and searched for Bruno.

“This is ridiculous,” she breathed, tabbing slowly with the arrow buttons.

The man had apparently stopped publishing several decades ago. All but one of his papers were behind a paywall, a 30-year-old monograph on the mathematics of distributed networks. According to the abstract, Bruno had shown that a theory of information exchange from computer science was broadly applicable, including to models of human society. The example he used was—

“Belief in ghosts,” Nio said aloud.

She skimmed the paper, which was mathematically dense. She could follow the equations, but she wasn’t familiar with the underlying theories and she gave up on page eight. She shut the files and leaned over on her elbow. On the ceiling over the TV, a brown stain traced an irregular rim around a patched tile.

A loud knock woke her promptly at 7 a.m. the next morning, followed by the clicks of the key card in the lock. She had been asleep. The door opened and the morning sun broke over Nio’s face. She squinted and pulled the pillow over her head. It smelled like cheap detergent, same as the comforter on which she slept. The files were still open around her, and Agent Quinn began packing them up.

“Today’s a work day,” he said. “They’re waiting for us at the office. We got a conference call with New York at noon, so we’re on the road in half an hour.”

Nio flipped him off.

The door swung half shut and she realized her head was throbbing. The headache had come back. No more sleep.

She groaned and stumbled to the table where she had dropped her things. She rifled through her coat for the pills the sheriff had given her, knocking the small evidence bag with her belongings to the floor. Her loop metal earrings rattled inside. She found the bottle in her coat pocket and swallowed two pills quickly, eying the small local newspaper. She read the headline. She looked again at the date. It was the Sunday edition. Almost a week old. She may already be too late.

 

Local Woman Predicted SD Arson, Warns Attacks Will Continue

Sleepy Eye resident Maureen Arneson predicted last week’s arson attack in Aberdeen, South Dakota. She even gave the exact address: 421 Asher St. So why didn’t the police stop it? Simply, no one believed her.

Maureen called the Brown County, South Dakota Sheriff’s Office just days before the fire that destroyed one home and nearly killed four people and warned the officers to be on the lookout for a strange woman from out of town.

“When the lady officer asked me how I knew about the threat, that’s when I knew nothing would happen,” explained the 56-year-old Arneson. “Because I heard it from God. From His avenging angel.”

Maureen says she knows how it sounds, and as a lifelong Christian, she’s heard it all before. It doesn’t help her credibility, she admitted, that the angel’s guidance comes through her television, which she inherited with the house from her grandfather.

“People have always been scared of faith,” she said, “even in ancient times. I get that. God is scary. He’s supposed to be. But He also loves us and offers us salvation.”

Brown County Sheriff Richard Marbrant declined to comment on the tip but was quick to point out that a suspect was already in custody. The woman’s identity has been kept secret pending an investigation.

When asked what else the angel had told her, Maureen was decidedly more reserved. Some of it was private, she explained. But she assured her fellow Minnesotans that attacks by persons or forces unknown would continue, and that if she received additional tips, she would pass them on to law enforcement.

“Something incredible will happen very, very soon,” she said. “A sign. We will all see it. And we will be called into the service of the Lord. May He give us strength.”

 

Forty-five minutes later, after briefly falling back asleep and being woken again, Nio was showered and dressed and her head had stopped throbbing. She couldn’t find anything more about the article in the paper, which suggested whatever was going to happen hadn’t yet. She walked down the motel steps carrying the evidence box, steel rings back in her ears. The blizzard that had blanketed the north in snow a couple weeks before had been replaced by unseasonably warm temperatures, and puddles of melted snow filled the potholes in the parking lot and reflected the warming sun.

Quinn was waiting by the car in his suit and expensive tie. From the looks of it, he had just been talking on the phone. He watched her approach.

“I said half an hour.”

Nio made a face. As she got closer, she could feel the fluctuations in his bioelectric field. Something has perturbed him and he was taking it out on her.

“You okay?” she asked.

“Sure. Why?”

“No reason.” She glanced to the phone in his hand.

He raised it like he had forgotten it was there. “Gotta keep the boss up-to-date.”

Nio put her awful green-and-brown boots on the dash and tried to scratch under the ankle bracelet, but it was tight and flush with her skin. “I hate this thing.”

“You need breakfast?” Quinn asked. “Or are you still full from last night’s meat fest?”

“I’m okay,” she said, pulling her seat belt around her.

“You can take off the tie,” she told him on the freeway several minutes later. “You keep reaching for it. It’s obviously making you uncomfortable.”

“Field agents have a dress code.”

Nio turned to the back seat. “I don’t see the boss here.”

Quinn didn’t answer.

“Ahhh.” Nio nodded to herself with a smile. “I get it. You got in trouble. That’s why you were in South Dakota, why they gave you to me. You fucked up and now you have to suffer a shit detail and prove that you can follow the rules, all the rules: wear the tie, keep up with your paperwork, follow procedure.” She looked at his neck. “Shave.”

He rubbed it.

“You had a beard, didn’t you? Until recently. And you cut your hair.”

“Your psychic spirits tell you that?”

“The skin of your cheeks is a slightly different color. Lighter. Like it was protected from the sun. We’re just now coming out of winter, which means you had it for a while. Or it was exceptionally bushy.”

Quinn grabbed the rear view mirror and turned it, as if testing whether all of that were really deducible from his dark complexion.

“I’m right, aren’t I?”

He scowled and moved the mirror back.

“For what it’s worth,” Nio said, “I think covering your face was a good move.”

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“You keep rubbing your scalp. That’s new, too, isn’t it? What are those scars from? I notice they’re still a little pink.”

Nio watched the road roll by. She resisted the urge to rub the regularly spaced ovals in her skin.

“What’s the matter?” Agent Quinn poked her gently in the shoulder. “You’ve been poke-poke-poking at me since we met. Don’t tell me you can’t take it.”

“It’s not that.” She was quiet. She shook her head. “It’s a long story.”

Quinn looked ahead to the highway, which was straight as far as he could see. “Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but we have lots of time.”

“It’s nothing. Look, I’m sorry I teased you about the beard. And everything else. You’re right. I shouldn’t have if I wasn’t willing to take it in return. That was a dick move. I’m sorry.”

Agent Quinn swallowed the words in his throat. “Fair enough,” was all he said.

They drove in silence.

“We need gas,” he said some time later.

They stopped and both went to the bathroom. When Agent Quinn came out, Nio was studying a paper map she had taken from a rotating rack nearby. She folded it up when she saw him and replaced it.

“No phone,” she said. “I wondered where we were.”

At the next mileage sign, Nio asked to take the upcoming exit.

“You gotta pee again already?”

“US 71,” she explained. “South.”

“71?” Quinn scowled. “We got a couple more hours on the interstate.”

“Just take the exit.”

“Where are we going?”

“Toward Mankato.”

“What’s in Mankato?”

“I said toward Mankato. There’s someone I need to talk to.”

“In Mankato?”

Toward Mankato,” she stressed.

“What does this have to do with a guy who died in New York?”

“Look, Agent Quinn, you seem like a decent-enough guy—”

“Wow, thanks.”

“—and I’m sorry that you’re disabled or whatever—”

Disabled?

“—but we’re not partners. You’re here to keep me from going off the reservation. I’m here to find out what happened to Sol and get my life back. So if I wanna talk to someone in Mankato, we go to Mankato. If I wanna talk to someone in, say, a tiny town near Mankato, we go there. Okay?”

“For the record, I’m here to preserve the Bureau’s interests. That includes keeping you on the reservation, but my remit is larger than that.”

“Such as?”

“Such as making sure you don’t commit further crimes while remanded to the United States Department of Justice. Such as making sure we join that conference call with New York in”—he looked at his watch, a Rolex—“three hours and change.”

“That’s the second time you’ve called me a criminal. Is that what you think I am? Some kind of compulsive offender?”

“I think you’re someone who sees the law as a hindrance, something to be got round when it doesn’t suit you. I think you think the ends justify the means. I think you think you can go around stealing people’s phones and burning down their houses without having to face any consequences for it because you decided it was justified.”

“What if it is? And I didn’t steal Searan’s phone. I borrowed it.”

“Borrowed implies asking. You lifted it while pretending to care about her dead son. Do you not see how sick that is?”

Nothing.

Quinn snorted. “See? You act like this is all just some ridiculous waste of time, like all these people—the judge, the sheriff’s office, the court clerks, the victims, the attorneys, the Bureau, me—are doing this just to fuck with you. As if all of us don’t have better things to do with our lives than make yours difficult.”

“And you always follow the rules, do you?” She poked the pudge of his bare neck.

He moved away and scowled.

“Sorry,” she said. She put her hands in her lap and looked down. “Look, I have no intention of embarrassing you in front of your boss, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“You’ll understand if that doesn’t fill me with confidence.”

“But I still need you to head south.”

Why?” Agent Quinn insisted.

“I told you. There’s someone I need to talk to.”

“Who?”

Nio turned to look at him. She made it clear by her face that she wasn’t going to answer. “Exit’s coming up.”

Agent Quinn didn’t take his eyes from the freeway, and he didn’t slow down.

“Who?” he asked again.

Nio didn’t answer.

“Suit yourself.” He settled into the seat with one hand on the wheel, like it was going to be a long drive.

The exit approached fast.

“Fine,” Nio said. “Then take me back to South Dakota.”

He laughed.

“Give me your phone.” She held out her hand. “I’ll call Special Agent Roger what’s-his-name right now.”

“Why? Because you think it’ll make me look bad that I couldn’t last a day with you and I’ll give in?”

“Hand it over then.”

The car passed the exit.

Nio clenched her jaw. “I don’t wanna measure dicks, Axl. I don’t have one. If I can’t go where I need to, then there’s no point to this. Are you smart enough to understand that? Then it really is just a waste of everyone’s time. Turn around, please.”

“The agents we’re going to talk to investigated the case originally. They’re busy people with real crimes to solve, with real victims. We can’t just leave them—”

“Turn around!”

Quinn didn’t move. He gave a little shrug. “Look, I’m sorry you don’t get it.”

“Turn around,” Nio repeated.

Nothing.

She looked at the wheel. She grabbed it with one hand and pulled down. The car veered onto the shoulder and then over the side into a ditch of patchy snow, where it bounced hard, sending everything loose to the roof. The air bags deployed as the vehicle was deflected in an arc through a chain link fence and into a fallow soybean field, where it stopped.

Everything was quiet except for the engine, which made a slight rattling noise.

“Fuck!” Quinn hit the steering wheel with his palm. Then he did it again and again. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

He got out of the car and continued his one-word tirade as he walked in circles in the field. He reached up and yanked at his collar. The button popped off and he pulled the tie loose, nearly falling over in the process, and threw it. In flapped in the stiff breeze and barely traveled a yard before falling on a patch of snow, saved from melting by a shallow depression.

“For fuck’s sake! What’s wrong with you?” he shouted.

“Are you all right?” An elderly man with an Amish beard called to them from the shoulder above the ditch.

He had stopped his narrow white three-wheeled van on the shoulder. Warning lights blinked. The biohazard sign was painted in black on the side. Zombie control. Judging from the finger-smears on the man’s soiled hazard suit, he had one. Identification would be by DNA extracted from a tooth, which is all the family would get in remembrance.

Out of a global population of just over nine billion, it was estimated that no more than a few hundred thousand had died from the “zombie” virus, or 0.005%. And yet, the catastrophe was genuine. At least as many people died senselessly from suicide, panic riots, looting, and mob lynchings of those suspected of being infected—or even of hiding those that were. In a handful of now-famous court cases in Spain and the US, individuals filmed leading mobs that pulled people screaming from their homes were either acquitted or left with light sentences, particularly if they were women, on grounds that they were acting “in defense” of their families.

The ranciform encephalopathy virus, as it was later called, was a mutant of the bornavirus. It didn’t give its victims a taste for brains, but it did attack the brain, causing swelling and deposition of Alzheimer’s-like plaques that swiftly inhibited cognition. Over the course of a week, sometimes longer, the infected began to act increasingly irrational before eventually succumbing to an irresistible urge to wander, presumably to encourage transmission. Once consumed with wanderlust, their eyes frosted over, limiting their vision, and they quickly became oblivious to their surroundings, including heat, cold, and pain. Cause of death in many cases was not the virus itself but violent trauma. Many were struck by high-speed vehicles while wandering across a highway or intersection. Others fell into machinery or drowned.

Nio had been a teenager at the time, and she had lined up with everyone else to get the vaccine. There were still hundreds of cases per year—an endemic disease, like measles or chicken pox, rather than an epidemic one—but the common wisdom, right or wrong, was that the remaining afflicted were anti-vaxxer holdouts or crazies who ranted online about it all being a massive conspiracy to convince everyone to be injected with mind control serum. What few “zombies” appeared, more than a decade later, were greeted with annoyance rather than fear, especially by the thousands of stranded commuters waiting helplessly in traffic for a city sanitation worker to come clean up the shattered body still dragging itself, legless, down the highway.

“We’re okay,” Quinn insisted to the elderly man.

“Are you sure?” He walked forward from the vehicle, which looked like a boxy toy trash collector. “That was a nasty fall. I have a radio. I can call the highway patrol. Or Triple A.”

“We’re all right,” Quinn repeated. “It was just an accident.” He held up his credentials. “I’m with the FBI. Everything’s fine. There’s no need to call anyone.”

“The FBI?” The man squinted.

“Please just go back to your vehicle, sir. Thank you for your concern. It was just an accident. Everything’s under control.”

“Well . . .” The old man wasn’t sure. “If you say so, officer.”

“Agent,” Nio corrected.

“Thank you, sir,” Quinn repeated with a raised voice. “Thank you for your concern. If you could just move along, we’ll be on our way.”

“Well . . .”

“Thank you.”

The man turned back down the shoulder, looked again once, and then walked back to his tiny electric truck. A moment later, he pulled back onto the highway, yellow lights flashing in warning as he rejoined traffic.

Quinn turned to Nio, who stood on the other side of the car. “You coulda killed me with a stunt like that.”

“That’s what airbags are for.”

“HA!” He raised his hands. “Is that supposed to be funny? What was the point of this? What is it you think you accomplished?”

Me? You’re the one who had to be a dick to prove you’re in charge. You couldn’t just go to frickin’ Mankato! It’s not even an hour away.”

“I told you, we have a phone con—”

“Call your buddy Roger right now.” Nio held out her hand for his phone. “Tell him what happened. Ask him what he thinks.” She waited.

Quinn stood in the field like a suited scarecrow. He took off his coat, picked up his tie, and walked to the car. He tossed his clothes in the back and popped the hood. Whatever he saw satisfied him, and he returned to the driver’s seat and sat in silence for several moments.

“Don’t—ever—”

“Oh, relax. Car’s got Florida plates; it’s a rental. I’m sure the Bureau is insured.”

“It doesn’t work like that. I’m still responsible.”

“Say it was the old guy’s fault. He swerved to pick up a bleeder. I’ll back you up.”

Quinn shut his eyes and sighed. “Not everything in the world is a trick or con. Do you get that? Some things matter.”

“Yes. They do. And the effing rental car is not one.”

With a noisy engine, Quinn pulled onto the dirt tractor path and the pair made their way to a graded gravel road and then to US 71, which eventually winnowed to a two-lane road. Quinn didn’t speak, and Nio left him alone. They were still several miles from their next turn when they passed a pair of men standing in a field similar to the one they had crashed through an hour before. Both had their hands to their foreheads and were staring at the horizon.

“What is that?” Quinn asked. The field was on the passenger’s side. He leaned, but he couldn’t see well. “Is there something out there?”

“Stop the car,” Nio said.

Quinn complied, and the pair of them got out and stood by the side of the road.

A writhing black mass, like living smoke, moved across the horizon. It was massive, hundreds of feet high, stretching from trees to clouds and drifting slowly south.

Toward Mankato.