Lance Olsen (Ph.D., U of Virginia) is Writer-in-Residence at the University of Idaho. He is author of four books of criticism, four books of fiction, and many short stories. His novel, Tonguing the Zeitgeist, was a finalist for the 1995 Philip K. Dick Award. His next two novels, Burnt and Time Famine, will appear later this year.
They sent down the robotic cockroaches first. Back in the eighties. To Wall Street, mainly, though they also hit Beijing and Moscow. The evidence is overwhelming. It was all recon, checking things out, the intergalactic shock troops, with insects that looked just like all the other insects around them—the ones under that metal chair in the corner of the Stock Exchange, the ones under that sheaf of papers in the filing cabinet in Red Square—unless you picked them up, unless you examined them real close. Cuz then you saw, if you squinted, the cameras just behind those dark polymer eye shells.
You think I don't know how that sounds? You think I don't know you want to treat me like one of those kids born without noses, with flippers instead of arms? Well, don't. Cuz it's true. All of it's true. Every single word.
I'm the Raz, the Fed, the one They never told you about. I do the jobs that don't exist. I investigate the incidents that never happened. And this is my report from the front. This is my last dispatch. I'm sitting in the bedroom on the second floor of our safe house in East LA, Yeltsin-70 in one hand and cassette in the other, and they're on the stairs, man, they're coming up. So here goes. This is it. This is how the world ends.
They sent in the robotic cockroaches first. No one noticed. They went about their business, collecting data, organizing details, sniffing air, chewing detritus they chanced on. Recording. They were droids, cosmic notation instruments, with nano hard-drives for heads and vacuum cleaners for stomachs and assorted monitors for antennae. They gathered information like other insects gathered pheromones and food, continuously, relentlessly, sampling the temperature, UV emissions, background radiation, skittering into the national mainframes and hacking the codes, burning the neural networks of the globe, downloading the digital identity that made the planet itself. They discovered how governments functioned, how the hive-mind of the media performed. They ascertained the economic machinery, our technical acumen, the geography of our corporate imaginations. Then they started going for the tissue samples.
They infiltrated the hospitals, darted among the wards, harvesting. They took epidermal clippings from sleeping patients. Accumulated drug specimens from the pharmacies. Impervious to cold, they invaded the icy nightmare-crypts of the morgues, burrowing deep through tympanic membrane, incus, cochlea, vestibular nerve, directly into the brain.
Which is where the first one was exposed in the fall of 1989 by an autopsist during a routine postmortem on a burst parietal aneurysm at the Columbia Medical Center in New York. Nesting among the semisolid jell, the thing—flat slippery body housed in a leathery yellow-brown casing, bristly legs, flickering feelers—hissed at her when she uncovered it. The autopsist, Dr. Fiona K'ai-chih, removed the orthopteron with tweezers and crushed its armored head. Instead of umber sap, a demure blue spark flittered out. Dr. K'ai-chih slipped the carcass under a microscope and saw, behind what was left of those dark polymer eye shells, the cameras. She called the police. The police called the FBI. The FBI called the CIA. And the CIA called us.
I entered the case in August, 1990, after way too much had already gone down. I was there, really, to bear witness. I was there for the metaphorical dustoff, the Great Transcription, though everyone—including me—pretended I was there for other, more optimistic, reasons. Further robotic cockroaches turned up, hundreds of them, thousands, often near corpses, sometimes in the prison cells of child-killers being shaved for execution by electric chair, or in the bowel-remains of dying prostitutes gutted by their pimps in Hoboken alleys. Sometimes in AIDS hospices, psychiatric institutions, sensitive areas on overseas military bases, Blockbuster outlets, Disneyland and the myriad food stalls in the Mall of America. They spread through the country like flames over spilled jet fuel… Chicago… Omaha… Portland… Austin… San Diego… you name it. We did what we could to keep the news out of the public arteries, and we were lucky, mostly. Then we heard from our contacts in the crumbling Soviet Union, a bloated communism coming down around their ears, that the U.S. wasn't alone in this discreet interplanetary war.
I scanned CNN for signs of the final embarkation, the Weather Channel for indicators of ultimate change, old movies on that Turner station for scenes added while our cultural backs were turned toward something seemingly more interesting. I didn't see a thing. No rough beast, no poltergeist, no worldwide rapture. The earth didn't stop spinning. The final deluge didn't arrive. Everything simply continued… the way it had always continued… till, that is, the summer of 1994.
I was up in Seattle, doing some business at our West Coast headquarters, running interviews on a spontaneous combustion in Pioneer Square. It'd been a long day and I was lying on my bed in my hotel room late at night surfing channels when I saw him flip onto the screen. Allegedly killed his ex-wife and her male friend by stabbing them over and over again, then kneeing her spine, yanking back her head by the blond hair, and slitting her throat. Blood was everywhere. I remember how it was so black it looked as if someone had spattered and puddled crude oil down the condo walk. And I remember him, the one we soon started calling Rhabhog, standing in the LA police station, proud, determined, even defiant, like this was some inconsequential project, an ethical fender-bender, like our universe was somehow smaller than his. I looked into his eyes as his eyes looked into the media. They said: You're living on my planet now. And a moment later I found myself reaching for the phone, punching in the numbers, making reservations for the first flight south in the morning.
You could tell, if you knew the context, if you followed the information. It wasn't hard. The legal wrangling began, the accusations and counter accusations, the preliminaries, the posturing, the televisual detonation and I sat in front of my set in another hotel room in another city and studied his eyes, the way they'd drift up and left in the courtroom like his mind was just too busy with important matters to be troubled by this. The jury selection commenced, and the trial itself, and the Dream Team swooped down, and the experts and counter-experts zigzagged around the truth like beetles over spilled candy corn, and the DNA discussions erupted, and the character witnesses came forth, and the videos showing Rhabhog laughing the day his ex-wife died cycled, and those showing his lame legs, and those showing his legs weren't lame at all, and the Nazi cop taking repeated detours from the legal boulevard, and the smirk on Rhabhog's face as he fumbled with that silly bloody glove before the jury, and the look on his ex-wife's bruised face as she returned from the dead to tell us all he'd get away with it someday, do what you wanted, think what you would, he'd get away with it… and I sat in front of my set and studied his eyes, the way they'd glance up at the camera, checking, the way they'd flirt with the powerful twelve across the room on his right, sweet as the eyes of a seraphim, the way they'd roll with disdain when the black man behind the prosecution's podium made another angry point… the dark brown eyes, flaring, charming, self-pitying, self-righteous, self-aware—and always, if you inspected them closely enough, glassy, too… detached… cool… always something calculating as a computer running algorithms behind them.
It wasn't hard at all, but we had to be sure. So we brought in the specialists just in case, the kind who don't show up in your phonebook, the kind you'll never find unless they decide to find you, and they went through the footage, played it, replayed it, paused it, zeroed in on that horse-jawed face, that high forehead, that Doberman's neck and chunky shoulders, magnified those eyes with their computers, magnified them some more, till their screens were overrun with them, till there was no more space left for anything else. They went ultra-violet. They went ultrasonic. They went infrared. And then those specialists spotted what we always knew they would: the telltale dark polymer shells, the robotic vidcams pivoting frenetically beneath the surface.
I don't have much time. They're on the landing. My partners are dead. The door'll hold them a minute, I figure, maybe a little longer. The Yeltsin-70 will hold them a couple seconds more. There's a gray BMW in the alley out back. I can see it from my window. The phoneline's gone. My cellular's down. This is what it's all about, in the end. This is the thing it all comes down to.
The universe clarified. Everything connected. Everything made perfect sense when it was too late whether it made sense or not. The trial, of course, wormed on. The defense launched its case. The infamous race card pitched into view. The national polls bucked back and forth like a fighter jet tagged by a heat-seeking missile. Blacks cheered. Whites jeered. The police prepared for riots while the talkshows prepared for unimaginable success. My unit moved into the safe house in East LA and prepared to act, readying to pass our amassed data on to other shadowy bureaus with profiles even more nebulous, more intricate and unnameable and serious, than ours. I worked nineteen- and twenty-hour days, slept less and less, four or five hours a night, but with the dreamless intensity of drugged blackouts an incorporeal, profound, overweight sleep, the sort where you wake up in exactly the same position in which you lay down, all your digits fizzing with nerve-static.
It was from one of these, on a warm yellow October dawn, that I was roused by a clicking noise like fingernails on a metal desk. White light was everywhere at once. It broke into millions of itself. The cockroach on the pillow next to my ear spoke through the speaker in its belly. It's antennae fidgeted.
"We won," it told me, "the instant the first of us activated its hard-drive."
It's voice was slo-mo, robotic sizzle, white noise.
"There's still the trial, the judge, the jury," I said, groggy.
"It's not about that anymore. It was never about that. Everything's primetime now. Everything's within budget. We know what you know. We've been where you've been."
"You know what we want you to know." "The judge?"
"He's a fair man. We've checked him out. We can count on him."
"Adopted for an afternoon. Age eight. Picnic in the hills." Clicking. "He doesn't recall. His parents, if asked, remember a different day."
"You contaminated the lines."
"We made him family. His brainstem is our brainstem. His heart our heart."
I slipped my left hand out from under the thin sheet, lowered it toward the carpeted floor, toward my Yeltsin-70. Light swarmed the room like a photon ocean. I could barely see. Neon red filaments fired up and down my optic nerve.
"The jury, then," I said.
"The world is a statistical difficulty, not an impossibility. We knew them before they knew themselves. We visited."
"The tissue samples"
"Cellular reformulation. Nanobots injected into the eye during routine optometric exams. Ascended along the inferior rectus into the braincore. A slow process of reconfiguration. Growth. A flowering."
"They don't act convincingly human"
"Because they're not convincingly human. Everyone's a talkshow host waiting to happen. Everyone's a book deal in the making. Think beta test. Think TV pilot."
"Our planet's becoming your entertainment channel."
"You're planet's becoming our ride. Ten years. Five, all things being equal." I touched cool ceramic. Fingered the safety catch. Clack. "Imagine. A galactic atrocity theme park. You should be happy. You should be content. Now you have a purpose. You're becoming a vacation spot for others. One among many." I palmed the oily handle. Trigger. "There are so many sights to see, so many journeys to take."
"We're becoming a moving wax museum."
"It's a long process. A meticulous one. You're becoming yourselves. Serial killers. Political assassins. Human sacrifices among the ancient ruins. Everything is possible."
"Civil wars. Executions. Gang killings."
"A full family getaway. And nothing out of the ordinary. All you have to do is be who you are. Cooperate. Help the inevitable process toward the inevitable product. Help happen what will happen without us. Keep your thoughts to yourself."
"And no one will know."
"No one except us. No one except our backers."
"Klub Med." "Club Med?"
"Klub Medellín, as in Medellín Cartel, an economic entity in the throes of diversification, the executives there having found people experience just as much joy getting off on violence as opiates."
"Yeah, well, here's the thing."
I rolled off the bed and simultaneously brought up my semi-automatic. The light swamping the room turned pulsating blue. My pillow turned into a haze of smoking feathers. The cockroach turned into steam and shreds.
Only not before it'd broadcast the emergency signal. A high, short, piercing shrill. Not before the end had been set in motion.
A long heart-pump of silence and, milliseconds later, the crash at the front door. Footsteps clumping through the foyer. Rumble on the stairs. My pale hand flying around the bedstand drawer, searching for my cassette.
Beginning the final dispatch, which maybe someone is listening to right now, which maybe someone isn't
The apocalypse isn't about clouds of boiling seawater sucked miles into burning atmosphere off the blue coasts of the Bikini atoll. It isn't about the Berlin Wall or the Cuban Blockade or the Butcher of Baghdad, melting polar ice caps or greenhouse gasses or misfiring DNA. It's all about watching. It's all about observing the almost unobservable like a stunned carcrash victim wondering if what you just saw is real, brakes and flames and palms across the inside of the fiery windshield.
And it is. Every word of it.