The waitress brings us our coffee, dishwater pale murk in cracked porcelain cups. Behind the thin surgical mask, her face is unreadable, but her gaze flicks from me to my companion and back again before she leaves without a word. Mickey watches her go and then fixes me with that stare that locked us together only an hour ago. For a long moment, the silence continues, as our eyes confirm what our hearts seemed to know the instant we passed outside my office building.
“Okay, Dale,” he says, his voice hoarse and still raw, like my own, but with an accent I can’t place – perhaps a district on the other side of the city, perhaps another country. “I’m going to ask you a couple of questions, but I think I already know the answers.”
I pick up the coffee, finding it smells as weak and thin as it looks, and contemplate taking an exploratory swig. Around us the few lunchtime patrons of the dingy coffee shop are listlessly eating, lifting up paper masks to shovel in crumbling and greasy burgers, backsides squeaking on red vinyl seats. Those that aren’t are staring at us, at our uncovered faces.
“Okay,” I say, “Shoot.”
“You had the sick. But you didn’t report it, or go to quarantine like you were supposed to. Didn’t tell anyone.”
I nod, scared to say out loud that I’d broken the law, and willing him to lower his voice. He smiles a little, showing one blackened and rotting canine.
“Yeah. Me too, I mean, obviously. Look at us. We look like shit. But, you got better. They say 1 in 10 do, and you took a chance. No family, no close friends, you weren’t worrying about passing the sick along. Or maybe too scared to let that stop you.”
I nod again, something like excitement and night terror churning in my gut. I think I knew all this, that he and I were the same, when we saw each other this morning.
I came out of the office building, fighting the paranoia and nausea, pulling my necktie loose. I couldn’t be around my coworkers, couldn’t look anyone in the eye. Guilt from ignoring the quarantine, from lying, but something else. Something wrong, in every pair of eyes. Ever since the fever broke, and I lay awake and sweating in my bed, the sheets clinging to me, feeling remade. It’s worse than the sick ever was.
Mickey was there, just outside my office building, crouched on the edge of a planter box, sucking a cigarette down to an ashen nub, dressed in torn jeans and a stained green nylon jacket, worn thin by time. Our eyes met and we froze, held in place like two sparking nodes of an electric arc.
“We should talk,” was all he’d said, and he led me to this cafe around the corner.
“So,” he continues, “We were sick, we hid it, we got better. But it’s not really better is it? There’s something wrong.”
“Yeah…” I croak, and take another mouthful of bitter coffee. “Something’s wrong. But… I don’t think… it’s not with us.”
“No,” he smiles in agreement, the black tooth sliding into view, “Not us.”
Two hours ago I was starting to feel like I was going mad. Now, I am not alone. I could cry, the relief is so great.
“Sometime in the night, when the sick was on me, I died. You did too. Or, something died. Because when it was over, I was new. I had the memories of a lifetime lived, I had the body and face that matched those memories, but that was my first day. I was a newborn. You felt this.”
It’s not a question, but I nod all the same. Yes. I felt this too, or something like it. The unreal sense that something before was gone, and I had slid into its shoes. I’d been a passenger, I had watched my life unfold with steady predictability. An understudy, ready to take the stage at the death of the star.
“And at the same time, you could see it in everyone else. You were no longer the same, and you were no longer like them. How much do you know about the sick?”
“Not much,” I say, looking over to the small public screen in the grimy cafe. Something crawls across the bottom, text I don’t want to read or think about, and the info-graphic above is one of the simulations of the outbreaks. I peel my gaze away and the churning in my guts abates for a moment.
“You know the reason it’s nasty is that it’s not a specialized infection, it’s a generalist.”
“Or maybe multiple diseases.”
“Yeah, right, no one knows, or rather, no one is saying.”
“They’re saying a lot,” I say, eyes back to the screen for a moment, “But not much of substance.” I loosen my tie a little more, and then flick free the top button of my dress shirt.
“They’re saying ‘be scared’, they’re saying ‘report the sick’, they’re saying it kills you. And we know that’s true, but not like they want us to think. Because something in us died, Dale.”
“So,” I begin, fighting the anxiety in me frothing over like a hot spring to keep my voice steady, “What happened to us?”
Mickey smiles, a wide creeping grin that reveals a second dead tooth, a black molar.
“I don’t know for sure, do I? But I got an idea that makes the only kind of sense.” He pauses as the waitress returns with a plate of soggy pancakes and slimy eggs for him, and small bowl of fruit salad for me. She sets them down with a hard thud, arms outstretched, staying as far away as she can from the only men around with uncovered faces. Mickey turns his pocked smile to her like the beam of a lighthouse, and she wilts from his gaze, retreating.
“See? She knows. The way you and I know each other; they know us just the same,” He breaks the yolks of the eggs, a yellow so pale it’s almost white, and spreads them across the pancakes. “You know about this experiment with mice? Where they let them drown and see how long they fight?”
“What?” I say, starting at this sudden turn. It hadn’t occurred to me how hungry I was for an answer to what happened, to why I feel this way, until he dangled the possibility in front of me. My fear and anxiety, an unfocused whirlwind since the sick, now coalesce to a hard point, a stone in my innards that makes food an impossibility.
“Yeah, they toss them in the water, and time how long it takes until they give up. Maybe they save them then – not the point really. Point is, the ones with more gut flora, fight longer. The ones that have none, give up right away. And if you sever the nerves between gut and head, in the ones full of bacteria? They give up too.”
He must tell from my blank face that I don’t understand why he’s telling me this. I never had a head for this.
“Point is this: you aren’t yourself. None of us ever were. If a little bacteria in your gut can make you keep struggling for life, then what are we? It’s mass, stupid selfishness. The bacteria just wants to live. More than just a mouse apparently, yeah?
“We got a billion little bugs floating around us. Living on our skin, in our guts, in our hearts. At the base of each of our eyelashes is a tiny little fucking mite, eating your skin. This is what I think.”
He pauses to shovel the last strip of the wet and eggy pancake into his open mouth, slurping it up like a noodle.
“There never was a human race. There’s just a big, wet meat puppet, being ridden by a billion little other living things, and it’s a lowest common denominator democracy. They all want to live, so they sit where they need to and pull levers, and we dance. We’re the mount. We’re the saddled mule, trying to tell ourselves that we’re in charge. But we never were.
“But you and me, boyo. We are now. The sick. It kills a lot of those little riders. Enough to break their hold. So that’s when we wake up.” He claps his hands together with a startling concussion. I can sense heads turning towards us, scared eyes over paper masks.
“Passive ghosts in these slave bodies. The first real humans. The first souls.
“Maybe every human has had a ghost like us, proto-consciousness, born into a fleshy tomb that has no use for them. Maybe it’s a new thing. Maybe not. Maybe billions of potential humans lived hidden existences of servitude, sitting back seat to germs and collective survival for the last hundred thousand years. I dunno. It doesn’t matter.
“But the sick is new. It clears the stage. The old boss dies out, murdered by just another germ. And we wake up. We wake up with a database of memories that aren’t really ours, and a head full of choices we never really made.”
I’ve pushed the bowl of fruit to one side, and now I struggle to remove my sports coat, feeling suddenly hot. Everything he’s saying feels like water on cracked earth. Like light in the darkest corners. Like truth.
When I woke up, my first morning of my life, I knew my name, I knew my address, I knew my job. I knew the long line of events that lead to now, and I knew none of them were mine. I think about choices I thought I’d made, and how painfully obvious that I’d never had any agency. A ghost, born into first life, by a plague. Yes.
“We’re awake” I say, trying it out on my new tongue. “We’re the first.”
“Probably not the first. I don’t think the sick kills. I think you and I know exactly what it does. But the rest of them? They’re not people, not like us. Every one of these sad sacks of wet garbage is just a colony of little bugs, all terrified for their lives. That’s what they see in us, even if they don’t know it. They see they aren’t necessary. The working man don’t need the boss, but the boss sure as fuck needs the working man.”
“The quarantine,” I say, with dawning horror.
“Yeah. I think we’re the lucky ones. The other first souls are getting put down. An infant race, facing genocide on the eve of their birth.” He drains the rest of the coffee, and looks over my shoulder. “That’s why we’re being followed. You know you’re being followed, right? Most of the sick turn themselves in, to be put down for the herd. But we didn’t, and you can bet that they fucking fear us now.”
An electric impulse rides down my spine. Followed. Of course. I’m being followed. Any of them could be following me. All of them. The few real people in a slimy sea of impostors. Of course they’ll follow us. They’ll do more than that. They need us dead.
“So you understand what has to come next,” he says, and slides his dirty hand from the large coat pocket. The pistol gleams like black ice for a moment before he hides it back beneath the table. His eyes are locked over my shoulder.
I turn to see the waitress, pointing at us, the mask sucking in and out as she speaks. She’s talking to a police officer, in his official quarantine garb, and two uniformed national guardsmen with slung rifles and high tech rebreathers. They look at us, our eyes meet. Two different species, the first front in the new war.
Of course I know what has to come next. We don’t have a choice.
Mickey’s arm is out and pointed straight, and the gun roars four times in quick succession, a tongue of fire licking across the table towards me. I feel the paths the tumbling slugs take through the air, two over each shoulder. There is the grace of an artist in the movement, a singularity of purpose in the murders that leaves me with no doubts.
We are no longer ruled by committee. I have nothing but my self. My job, my apartment, my false friends, all meaningless. I am a first soul. There more of us out there, and they need us.
Mickey is standing with slow, calm ease as the other patrons shriek and flee, bacteria colonies riding slave chariots of flesh for their own selfish survival. They trample and push one another aside to save their stolen skins.
This is the difference, what it means to be truly human. Mickey and I will do the hard things, not for ourselves, but for our newborn brothers and sisters.
He strips the weapons from the corpses, taking everything we can use, and tosses one of the guardsmen’s short barreled machine guns to me. From the corpse of the waitress, he takes a small roll of cash. We’ll need it all. We’ll need to find others like us. To organize. We need to ensure the safety of our new race.
Our eyes meet again, that animal sameness that brought us together now sings in harmony, a ringing chord of shared humanity. He smiles his black toothed smile.
I smile like I have never smiled before. My first smile. My new life. Mickey kicks open the front door and the light of the day streams in on us. His gun roars again, and I roar with him.