Solar Lens (excerpt from novel)

Chapter Eight


The chaos started from the bottom.

There was a man, a woman, a child staring at himself in a mirror, when he noticed something strange. He hadn’t felt well for days—a pang had sprouted inside of his abdomen, his chest, his skull, a pang like someone was gouging out his organs. But he had passed it off as a stomach bug, a cold, a headache. Surely he would recover soon.

But as he leaned in close to the mirror, he saw his pupils grow larger and larger, eventually bleeding over his iris like a puddle of black ink and trickling into the whites of his eyes. The man blinked quickly and rubbed his eyes, looking again, only to find his fingers and his face stained in black blood.

The world had turned black and white. The only color the man could see was the raw pink of his own flesh, crawling with worms of blood vessels. His skin had become translucent, like some milky plastic sleeve, and his eyes. His eyes stared at him, two shiny black balls in his sockets.

The man, the woman, the child screamed.

The woman stumbled out of the convenience store bathroom. Fluorescent lights spazzed overhead, or maybe they weren’t spazzing. Maybe it was just her vision spazzing.

Something was devouring her insides. Cocaine wasn’t supposed to feel like this. She doubled over, clutching at her stomach, staggering desperately toward the service counter.

“Help!” she croaked, hands clutching onto the edge of the counter.

There was no response. She knew cashiers hated druggies, but was the guy really going to leave her to die? Did she deserve to die?

The world around her spasmed like a TV on glitch. Through this convulsing black and white vision, the woman managed to catch sight of the teenage cashier on the other side of the counter.

The boy was bleeding black blood from his eyes and ears and nose and mouth.

The little girl stared with two completely black eyes at the flames.

Hours ago, her mommy had sent her out to play in the lawn. The neighbors had waved and smiled. The ice cream man had offered her a free cone.

Now, the melted vanilla ice cream ran through her fingers. The smoke wrapped itself around her, a dark gray blanket. She had heard the house crumbling on the inside, her siblings screaming. She stood. Staring at the red and orange and yellow monster that rose before her.

Red, orange yellow. Once the first three colors of the rainbow. Now the last three letters in destROY.

She could see the colors of the flames, and the colors of her own flesh, but everything else was black and white. She had started wailing for her mommy when the house first went up in flames. But now, she stood, silent.

Her mommy stood in the window, smiling down at her.

In mommy’s hand was a match.

The group of teenage boys in the arcade watched the descent into insanity.

They had seen this scene thousands of times before—in the movies, in their video games, on the internet. People all around them were glitching like avatars in a video game, having seizures in the neon lights. The disco ball spun faster and faster overhead. The spots of light on the dark walls shuffled and mixed, as if the arcade had been shaken like a snow globe.

One of the boys was utterly frightened.

The others laughed at him for being a pussy.

They all watched, intrigued.

Was it the drugs? Had someone overdosed? Had there been heroine in the fruit punch? Perhaps it was an act. Perhaps a dance they hadn’t seen.

Humans like fireworks, exploding, collapsing onto the ground. What a sight.

One of the boys pulled out his phone and started to film.

The news anchor felt the electricity in the air.

Things like this had happened before, but not in Novland. As a journalist, she had to be hyperaware of what was going on in the world. Similar outbreaks had happened on other continents, mostly in underdeveloped countries. Whole cities had been quarantined, gone dark, but they were never allowed to report on it.

Novland News was controlled by the city government, and they wanted order above all. Look where that got them. Now, the city was eating itself from the inside. A third of the buildings in the city had been set on fire. Half of the population had gone insane.

Even through the soundproof walls of the recording studio, she could hear the chaos. They had locked the doors, pushed furniture up against them, in case the infected would try to enter. This message would be broadcasted onto every remaining screen in Novland. Phones, computers, televisions, digital advertisements on the sides of buildings.

The news anchor stared into the black eye of the camera and began.

“People of Novland. Do not panic. All is well.”

She glanced up at her director, who smiled his rubber smile.

“Our lead scientist at the Novland Department of Research has concluded that the virus that seems to be spreading around is harmless. Symptoms of this virus include blackened blood and irrational decision making. Through extensive tests, the research team has determined that these symptoms are temporary. Think of it like a common cold. It will come and go, and we will all be fine.”

The news anchor blinked a couple of times. Her stomach felt hollow. She realized she hadn’t eaten anything the entire day. She coughed a couple of times.

“The city has everything under control. Remember: Novland Never Dies.”

The mayor felt like he was drowning.

The calls, the people, the papers, the bad news just kept coming. Everyone in his office was talking at once. The police chief rambled on about reports of murder, theft, arson. The public works director was asking for money, again, to rebuild the infrastructure that had been destroyed. His secretary nagged about civilian complaints, discussions about the oncoming “apocalypse,” even demands that he resign from office.

Resign? The mayor laughed nervously. There was no way he was going to resign. Not after he had worked so hard to get elected. The best law school, internships, half his life spent on community service. But all these messages. They were tiny bombs, blowing up the foundations of his credibility. He’d spent so long establishing himself in the public eye. He couldn’t let this insanity take that away from him now.

Quickly, he ordered an immediate report of safety from the news. Then, he took to the internet, writing passionately about the freedom that Novland stood for.

We live in a time of great order. Yet we are burdened by this order, this stiff structure. This virus has done a wonderful thing for us—

The attorney general was shouting at him for his attention. God, didn’t he see the mayor was in the middle of something important?

“Talk to the assistant mayor.” He kept typing.

—it has enabled us to escape our mental chains and fully express ourselves. Don’t worry about the symptoms, for they are only temporary. In the meantime, enjoy yourselves.

Soon, the chaos around the mayor diminished. He looked up from his phone, scanning the room. The janitor, who needed an excuse to stay in the mayor’s room, the safest place in the city, was scrubbing intensely at the floor.

Everyone else had left to the adjacent room, where Assistant Mayor Sullivan was giving directions to each of the leaders of the city. The mayor smiled, and Sullivan smiled in the next room, a rubber smile.

The mayor knew he could always trust Sullivan.

Screams filled the streets.

Fights like fireworks littered the asphalt. It seemed as if some invisible energy had been zapped into the air, electrocuting everyone every few seconds and catapulting them into erratic activity.

The homeostasis of the city, the normal protocol that everyone had silently agreed to follow, had cracked. Like some glass shell, it splintered down the middle, the splinter branching out into an intricate flower that eventually shattered into a million shards. The shards were thrown into a centrifuge, mixed and rearranged into a product all confusion and alien chaos.

The music rang loud and passionate: gunshot drumline, argument melody, clattering, screaming, wailing sound effects complementing fire crackling ambience.

The infection had started from the bottom. A neuron in someone’s brain malfunctioning. And then another neuron. And two more. And four more. And eight more. And all of a sudden the blackness soaked their eyes and their body spiraled out of their own control.

The humans were not the only ones who had been infected.

The city too was infected, eating itself from the inside.

Metal teeth and all, gobbling up flesh and nerves, pulsating with fanatic hunger.

Crazed, lawless.

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