Triangle Opportunity

Stable Diffusion

When Samantha called me for the first time in eight years, it was surprising for two reasons. The first is that roughly 90% of the calls I receive these days are from debt collectors after me to pay down my student loans. The other being that we parted on pretty ugly terms, most of that was my fault and I honestly never expected to hear from her again.

I scolded myself afterwards for being so eager. Fell out of bed, tangled up in the sheets trying to get my hands on the phone, then tapped the green icon and breathlessly answered. It’s been eight years, I shouldn’t give a shit. She should be like any other person to me.

“Jack? You sound so different. But then, it’s been a while hasn’t it. I’ve been wondering what’s happening in your life.” I struggled to sound composed but nonetheless stammered a little bit as I searched for words. “Y-yeah Sam, it’ sound different too. It’s nice to hear from you though. You must’ve Googled me, right?” She said that she had, and congratulated me on the trip to Africa I’d taken in my first year interning for the local paper.

“That must’ve been so fulfilling. If you don’t mind me asking, what are they paying you?” I assumed she knew it was unpaid if she’d bothered to ask, so I didn’t sugar coat it. “Wow, that sucks. But that’s the economy, right? Plenty of people are working for free just to get their foot in the door. Then they let you go right before they’d have to hire you and take on new interns.” Technically the law prevents that, but I was aware of loopholes.

“You know, I might be able to help. I’m working for this promising new tech startup, it’s right up your alley. There’s plenty of opportunities for someone like you, maybe we could meet for coffee and I’ll tell you about it?” Sounded just similar enough to a date that my heart skipped a beat. Reflexively, I blurted out yes. She supplied the day and time, which I dutifully recorded in my calendar app after she’d hung up.

Long after the call ended, my heart was still racing. I’d gone through hell after the breakup. I think only because I was dumped. Something about rejection makes you cling to that person, even if they were nothing special to begin with. I’d seen a local therapist about it for three years before I felt put together enough to stop. Well, not a real therapist. Psych students in training. That’s why it’s free.

Clarity began returning to me, and I wondered if I hadn’t made a mistake. Seeing her in person would only rekindle feelings I’d spent most of a decade trying to extinguish. The therapist, insofar as it was right to use that word, urged me to cut off all contact for my own good. That seemed logical at the time. But then, doesn’t absence make the heart grow fonder? They can’t both be true.

It was a long, excruciating road to recovery. By recovery I mean reaching a point where I was borderline functional. I’d built so much of my identity around Samantha that she was a sort of load bearing pillar. With that removed, the rest collapsed in a heap of flaming wreckage. Years one through three were just the panicked wanderings of a lost child. Years four through six were a frankensteinian process of patching together whatever pieces I could salvage and trying to rebuild something resembling who I’d been before.

Not a lot of meat to it. Mostly skeletal scaffolding, duct tape and staples. The smallest impact would bring it tumbling down, but for the time being it worked well enough that I was finally holding down a job again. If you call unpaid labor a job. With most of my friends flipping burgers or waiting tables, doing something related to journalism elevated me considerably in their view. All smoke and mirrors though. At the end of the day, they’ve got an income. I’ve got an IOU.

From that perspective, Sam’s mystery job offer sounded tantalizing. I couldn’t bring myself to care what exactly it was about so long as I’d be working with her. That meant frequent time together, which in turn meant a chance to patch things up. My mind telling me “that’s childish fantasy you should throw in the fire before it hurts you” while my heart says “don’t be afraid to bet it all on a long shot, if the prize is everything you’ve ever wanted.”

I listened to my heart. I want to say it’s a poor understanding of probability and defective pattern recognition. Probably why I buy lottery tickets, come to think of it. I’ve been with a string of girls since the breakup and one after the other I drove them away. Self-sabotage, my therapist told me. My own experience of it was something like the emotional equivalent of when your body rejects a donor organ. My anti-rejection drug is alcohol. Works great, problem is that I eventually sober up.

That’s not a healthy way to live, but it’s a lot healthier than the alternative. Which, for several years, was a long drop off a nearby bridge. Popular spot for jumpers as there’s a road below to smash your head on and a picturesque view for reflecting on your life before you do it. The city put up fences as a deterrent but people just climb ‘em. So they put in some free phones which connect you directly to the suicide hotline.

Never bothered using it. I knew the spiel. “Suicide is the ultimate act of selfishness”, because your own suffering ends but you cause everyone who knows you to suffer afterward. There’s two sides to it, though. I could understand if someone were suicidal over some transient problem. They might have a point then. But if not, then isn’t it selfish to demand that somebody prolong their suffering by multiple decades because you’re scared of death?

I drove past the bridge on my way to the coffee shop and recalled the time I’d spent all night there, deliberating over whether to jump. Some rando intuited what I was there for and took it upon himself to talk me out of it. He said his piece, I said mine, then we watched the sun rise together. I didn’t wind up doing it. He got to leave feeling good about himself. But my life remained unchanged. What did he save me from, except relief?

The coffee shop was a national chain that people whose identity centers around contrarianism like to snub their noses at. Certainly the coffee is nothing special but there’s something to be said for being able to reliably get the same product, clean and quickly, anywhere on the planet. Samantha sat in a booth waiting for me. She had on a dress I recognized, and a neon yellow and blue windbreaker that I didn’t. Down one sleeve, it said “E-hance your life!” Sheepishly, I took a seat opposite her and prepared to break the ice. That’s when I first noticed the necklace.

“What’s that around your neck?” She seemed delighted by the question. “Sharp eye. This is the product! I could tell you about it, or you could just try it out yourself. I brought one that should fit you.” She withdrew it from her purse and slid it across the table to me. I objected that I’d not yet so much as ordered a drink.

“Oh, of course. I had one before you got here but I could go for another.” I offered to pay, and had her tell me what she wanted. It turned out to be incredibly specific. I gave up on getting it completely right halfway through the description. You get points towards free food or beverages if you order drinks with their special card here and I’ve always had an addictive personality. It’s why I stay away from gambling and freemium games. Didn’t manage to avoid drinking, but you can’t win ‘em all.

When I returned with our drinks she had a blue and yellow binder out, splayed open across the table with various perplexing graphs and diagrams. “I figured you’d have questions about how we operate, what the pay and hours are like and so on” she explained. It actually hadn’t occurred to me. I was ready to take the job just to work with Sam. But of course I couldn’t say that, so I feigned interest.

“So Jack, here’s the deal. Todd is my manager, so to speak. I started working for him three weeks ago. Jill, a friend of mine, also works for him. He works for Dennis, who has a lot more people working for him than either Todd or myself. So far! I hope to narrow that gap today.” She flashed a grin at me. I just sat pensively, staring at the nonsensical pie charts and spreadsheets in front of me. She continued.

“The great thing about this is that everybody can be a manager. You have someone who you report your sales to, and they take a cut of your earnings, but there are also people who work under you. They report to you and you get a cut of whatever they earn. So the more people you share this opportunity with, the more your profits stack up!”

She seemed deliriously excited now. I didn’t know how to break it to her. I seriously considered going all-in despite what I suspected, just because it was a chance to spend time with Sam. But that same lingering love also forced me to speak my mind about what she was involved in. “Sam, this is a pyramid scheme.” She spit out some coffee and laughed in my face.

“Todd told me you’d say that! Those exact words, because of your high Krion level. Sometimes I think he’s psychic. I can see why you’d think that, but no, this is a new and dynamic business model called network marketing. You see, it’s all about who you know, like in any other business. Forming connections, like the connection from Todd to myself and Jill, or between you and I.”

I cringed when she said it. How I wanted such a connection to exist. But I couldn’t leave it alone. “Does Todd ever pay you any of his earnings?” She blinked at me, and said no. “So the flow of money is one way. Always from the recruit, up to the person who recruited them. Then from that person up to whoever recruited them.” She frowned, flipped through the binder and found a diagram of a web-like structure. “See? A network”.

It certainly was possible to draw it that way. But the structure was the same. “Sam, let me guess. There are meetings you go to every so often where they give you a pep talk, you buy more of the product from them, and they coach you with counter-arguments for when people like me tell you it’s a scam.” Her eyes widened, and her voice grew irate.

“Do you really think I’m so stupid I’d fall for something like that? Is that what you think of me? Now I remember why I left you. Look, I’m doing you a favor by introducing you to this opportunity”, she said. “If you’re too narrow minded to recognize it, then go back to your life as a failure.” It knocked the wind out of me. I considered storming out. But even if at the end of the day she hated my guts, I felt like it would be a small price to pay if I could spare her the misery and financial ruin she was headed for.

“Sam, I’m only saying this because some part of me still cares for you. If you won’t take it from me, search the company name online. Or the name of the CEO. Even if they call it something else, structurally, it’s obviously a pyramid scheme. If you don’t get out of it now you’re going to regret it before long.” She looked infuriated, but after a few deep breaths, replied: “Look, just try the product. If it doesn’t blow you away, then I’m wrong, and it’s all a scam.” She nudged the necklace closer to me.

I agreed to give it a shot, pocketed the necklace and we parted more or less amicably. I drove home in a fog of confusion and anxiety. Maybe I’d gone in with unrealistic expectations. But this was by far a worse outcome than I could’ve imagined. When I got home, I searched “E-hance”. Every search result was in some way affiliated with the company. I could find nothing negative about it. Even the Wikipedia page was spotless, consisting of what read like one long advertisement for their product.

When I tried to edit the page, it was immediately reversed and I received a warning from one of the mods. I explained to him how E-hance is structured, that it’s plainly a pyramid scheme. His reply read: “That’s some of the most astonishing ignorance I’ve ever seen. It’s network marketing, do your homework. E-hance is a dynamic and promising startup that is revitalizing small business in the US.” I pleaded my case with other mods but got some variant of the same response from all of them.

So, I turned my attention to the necklace. Really more of a neck brace as it was rigid, with two small hinges at the back so the “arms” could flex enough to get it around your neck. Neon yellow and blue, just like Sam’s jacket. The thickest piece was the back, to which the two hinged arms attach. On either side was a metal plate, and between them a small hole that I could not discern the purpose of.

So, I looked up the E-hance webpage and clicked the “how does the E-hancer work?” tab. It displayed a flashy animated diagram of the necklace as a rotating wireframe, with a sort of legend to explain what various parts did. I hovered my cursor over the metal plates on the back, and a window popped up. “The E-hancer never needs to be recharged. It runs directly off of your body heat! This also reduces the toxic materials used to make the e-hancer, which is a boon to the environment!”

I moved my cursor to the little hole, but no window popped up. It wasn’t possible to select. So I scrolled down to read the body of the page. “There’s no doubt that it’s a sick, sad world out there. Anyone can see that. But why doesn’t anyone do something about it? That’s the vision which compelled our brilliant founder and CEO, Bruce Hance, to invent the E-hancer whole-body Krion removal device. Krions are nasty energy particles which poison your thoughts with doubts about Bruce Hance, E-hance Ltd and the E-hancer device.”

An inset jpeg depicted a handsome smiling man with perfect teeth and a touch of grey in his carefully sculpted hair. Beneath it, gold text reading “Bruce Hance, pioneering founder and CEO of E-hance ltd.” I continued reading. “How does it work? Simplicity itself. Just pull the necklace apart as shown and place it around your neck from behind. You will immediately feel rejuvenated, revitalized, and convinced of the tremendous value that the E-hancer has to offer people in your life who suffer from high levels of Krions.”

An animated gif showed a featureless figure putting on the necklace in an endless loop. “Once this occurs, find your nearest E-hance motivational center to buy E-hancers in bulk to share with your family and friends, as well as to receive instruction on how to deal with doubting Thomases whose negative energy threatens to disrupt your upward trajectory to a brighter future. Do not react with anger, remember it’s just their Krions talking.”

I stared with a mixture of disgust and alarm. Who could fall for this? How big was this company? I couldn’t find anything about where it was located. Surely they were required to divulge that by law? I reported the website to the Better Business Bureau. A short time later I received a reply scolding me for being too closed minded where alternative business models are concerned and urging me to try their product for myself before judging it. My stomach sank.

The next logical step, it seemed to me, was to take the damned thing apart. My degree was in engineering, for all the good it’s done me. But at last, it was coming in handy. I dug up a set of fine tools of the sort used to dismantle watches, smartphones and other delicate devices. Whoever designed this thing, they really didn’t want anybody getting into it. The barely visible seam afforded no gap to wedge anything into.

Only by gently hammering the finest flathead screwdriver against the seam like a chisel did I manage to split it open. Even then, bits of one side broke off and remained connected to the other. I quickly realized this was a lucky break: The tabs where the two sides joined together had sensors attached. Evidently the device could tell if somebody was taking it apart. Did it phone home or something? Could I expect a visit from the cops?

The tabs remained in place however, snapped off in the process of removing one half of the casing. The circuitry inside laid bare, what struck me was the complexity of the chip inside. I’d expect to see this in a top of the line smartphone, not some gimmicky health necklace, or whatever it was. There was of course a small pouch type LiPo battery underneath, to keep it ticking while not worn. But also a spring loaded needle.

That surprised me. Why was that in there? It was positioned to extend through that hole I couldn’t figure out the purpose of before. A bundle of hair thin wires trailed from the back of the needle to the same PCB that the processor was mounted to. Try as I might, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. But there, next to the CPU, was what I recognized as a small solid state flash memory chip. If there were any answers to be had, I knew that’s where I’d find ‘em.

Gingerly, I cut the pins attaching the chip to the PCB one at a time until it came loose. Then set about the slow, tedious process of soldering new leads from each of the pins to a breadboard I’d use to interface with the little guy. One of my robotics projects involved this sort of work so I already had the software needed to dump the contents of the chip. It was not the instant eureka moment I hoped for.

This was some seriously sophisticated code. I couldn’t make heads or tails of most of it. The nearest basis for comparison I had was that some of it appeared to be for motor control, navigation and network disruption. Then I found what I quickly determined was a sort of flowchart. The kind used for very simple AIs like Alice. Trigger words would simply return the appropriate reply from a database.

The replies included “No, it’s network marketing”, “Just try the product once and if it doesn’t blow you away then I’m wrong”, “E-hance is a dynamic and promising startup that is revitalizing small business in the US” and so on. I shuddered, having glimpsed a small piece of the puzzle which I desperately hoped wasn’t what I now suspected. Just then, the disassembled necklace began beeping.

Oh shit. Did it have a cellular antennae? Was it alerting somebody that I’d breached the terms of service, or whatever? I hadn’t signed anything but recalled that in some situations simply using a product is implied acceptance of a long list of terms you don’t even have to read. When I hovered over the necklace searching for what tripped it, I realized too late why it was beeping.

A little CCD camera pivoted to look at me. Then two tiny nozzles took aim, each releasing a violent burst of aerosolized chemical. I dodged, but not quite fast enough. One eye was full of the spray and now burned with a pain beyond description. I thrashed about, screaming in agony until I had the presence of mind to locate my eye wash kit. Hands shaking, I performed the steps from memory as tears streamed down my face, and soon the burning subsided. But I could see nothing out of that eye. I hesitated to call an ambulance because of the insane price of the trip, instead calling a friend to drive me to the hospital. He arrived about thirty minutes later. Would that delay make the difference?

There was somewhat of a crowd waiting to be served but I had health insurance apart from state coverage and my condition was apparently serious enough to merit immediate attention. I hadn’t seen my doctor since I was maybe ten or eleven, that time I wiped out on a dirtbike and needed stitches. Still had the scar on my forehead, the source of no small number of Harry Potter jokes from friends.

“Oh, I’ve seen this before” he muttered once we were alone in the examination room. I felt hopeful. “It’s reversible, right?” He looked at me sternly. “You opened your E-hancer, didn’t you.” Only now did I notice the familiar blue and yellow brace around his neck, tucked almost invisibly into his coat collar. “That’s a violation of the terms of service, which clearly state that to protect E-hance ltd’s intellectual copyright, the device contains countermeasures to prevent reverse-engineering.”

Fuck. The fucking thing was boobytrapped. Asking to see a different doctor got me nowhere. when the nurse came in, she was wearing one of them too. I was sent home with an eyepatch, a tube of antibiotic eye drops and instructions to procure and wear a replacement E-hancer at my earliest possible convenience. Lying through my teeth, I assured him I would, and met my friend in the lobby. He was flirting with a tall statuesque redheaded nurse who was just about to put an E-hancer on him.

“NO!” I blurted out. Everyone stared at me. I seized him by the arm, and over his protestations, dragged him away from the nurse and into the parking lot. “What the fuck, dude? She said she’d give me her digits if I tried on some necklace dealie.” I explained what I knew so far to him on the ride home. He smiled through all of it, and laughed here and there. “Sounds like a conspiracy theory breh. You need some sleep.”

I gave up on it for the time being. Once home, before I hit the hay I sent an email to my boss suggesting cases of eye injury from the E-hancer as a possible story lead. I lay in bed for a while, worrying about my eye before I drifted off. My dreams were bizarre. Always, but especially tonight. I explored my city, or a version of it, where every billboard was blue and yellow. Bearing the E-hance logo, naturally. Every bus ad was for the E-hancer. Everyone wore blue and yellow clothing with the same logo on it.

I woke up sweaty and disoriented. I’d forgotten to set my alarm, but that weird sixth sense that normally wakes you up a minute or too before it goes off saved my bacon. I checked my inbox and found two emails. One from yesterday night, one from this morning. The first read “Very interesting Jack! I can always count on you to find stories where nobody else is looking. I’ll have my assistant check this out and get back to you when I’ve decided.”

The next email took quite a different tone. “Jack, this is concerning your lead idea from yesterday. I got my hands on an E-hancer to see what the fuss was about, and I really think you’ve got the wrong idea if you think this is a scam. It’s like night and day! Have you tried this? I hope so. I went back and read your last email, it smacks of Krion poisoning to me.”

I held my face in my hands. None of this could be happening. Yet when I opened my eyes, reality refused to change. I got up, showered, shaved, took a shit, then applied the eyedrops and put on the patch. Oh boy, I thought, here come the pirate jokes. The other interns had a seriously jockular take on what professionalism means and while most of the time it made work go by faster, my forehead scar made me a target from day one. The eye patch certainly wouldn’t help.

Only, none of them commented on it. No “Arr matey”s, nothing about doubloons, pantaloons or anything ending in ‘oons’. Each greeted me with an almost sickeningly chipper expression and went about their work as if we were strangers. That is, until they noticed I wasn’t wearing an E-hancer. Which is also when I noticed that all of them were. “Krions really sap your productivity you know. If you want on the payroll I’d seriously consider E-hancing your life. I mean, if I were you. Just a suggestion” one of them said.

Didn’t recognize him. Lots of turnover at this level. I got more or less the same spiel from the other interns though. Apparently word spread very quickly that I wasn’t wearing my E-hancer and thus didn’t take the job seriously. After an hour or so I was called in to speak with the HR guy. My boss was also there.

“Jack, I’ve been hearing some disturbing rumors. Is it true that you’ve been told about the benefits of E-hancing your life with a stylish, high tech E-hancer but refuse to? I have to wonder what motivates a poor decision like that. You must not want to E-hance your productivity. Is that because you’re secretly not dedicated to this company and want to see it fail?”

I balked. Then, thinking quickly, began to act my ass off. “My E-hancer was defective. That’s how I got the patch. As soon as I find the time to buy a new one I’ll E-hance my life with it, asap.” Their expressions turned from vaguely menacing to warm relief. “I figured it was something like that, my boy. You always were such an efficient worker. Looks like all of this was just a big misunderstanding! Here, let me save you the trouble of buying a replacement, I have one here.”

I froze. He pulled out a neck brace identical to the one I’d disassembled in my apartment and handed it to me, with an expectant smile. “Well, go on then. As soon as this little matter is settled we can discuss bringing you on as a part timer.” I wanted to cry. The easiest thing in the world would’ve been to slip it on, get the job and reconcile with Samantha. Everything I wanted was just one short step away.

I looked at my watch. Salvation. “It’s lunch break. I’ll put it on once I’ve had something to eat. Better to E-hance my life on a full stomach, surely?” They looked quizzically at me, but didn’t press the matter. As soon as I was out the door I headed home. Just above the speed limit, as a cop pulled up behind me and turned on his lights. Fuck, not now.

I rolled down my window to greet him, license and registration in hand. He asked me what the rush is, and as he leaned in, I noticed the blue and yellow necklace on him. “I’ve only just heard about the fantastic potential of the E-hancer to revolutionize my life! There’s no time to lose, I have to go buy one!” His face lit up. “Well shit, if I’d known that I wouldn’t have stopped you. On your way already! Your E-hanced life awaits!”

Couldn’t believe it was that easy. But the cops too? How did this happen so quickly? I drove past some other poor fool that’d been pulled over. He was cuffed, up against the squad car, and as I squinted to get a better look I realized the officer was placing an E-hancer on him from behind. Returned my eyes to the road just in time to avoid rear-ending a semi.

I burst through the door to my apartment and frantically set about taking the E-hancer apart. This time wearing a welding mask. The aerosol nozzles blasted the mask with sticky blue spray. I took the mask off as I’d no longer need it after that point, and set about neutering the devious little machine. I intuited it needed to think it had already implanted the needle. So I placed one finger on either of the little metal pads. Soon after, the spring loaded needle did indeed jut out of the little hole.

Looking closer, almost invisibly thin tendrils had emerged from the needle’s tip and were flailing around in the air as if searching for something. I snipped the fibrous bundle connecting the needle to the PCB, gripped the needle itself with a set of pliers and yanked it free. A light began blinking and the familiar beeping started, so I snipped out the battery. Just in case it had a GPS tracker, audio bug, or any other unwelcome surprises.

With all of that done, I delicately reassembled the E-hancer and re-sealed it with model airplane glue that cured transparent and could be dried in a few seconds by spraying accelerant on it. Once finished it looked good as new. It’d have to. I admit some degree of hesitation to put it on, even after I’d completely disabled it, but there were only fourteen minutes left in my lunch break and they’d begin to suspect something if I didn’t return on time.

When I showed up at the office with a fake smile on my face and the E-hancer on my neck, everybody’s demeanor was completely different. Where before they’d treated me with stiffness and suspicion, they now congratulated me for “E-hancing my life” and spoke to me with the sort of fondness normally reserved for family members. “Knew you could do it, m’boy!” My boss strode up and violently shook my hand. “Welcome to your new E-hanced life.”

I smiled as wide as I could, made direct eye contact and did my best to sound the part. “Yes sir! E-hance is a dynamic and promising startup that is revitalizing small business in the US, and I’m proud to be a part of that!” You could practically see the endorphins flooding his brain when he heard that. Like the specific rungs and notches on the end of a key depressing every pin by exactly the right amount to open a lock.

I was promptly hired on, not part time but full time, and experienced no further trouble from the boss or any of my co-workers. Once they believed you were “E-hanced”, their weird subtle hostility simply vanished and they turned their attention to the next guy without an E-hancer. The story I was assigned was a big one. Especially for someone who’d been an intern until today. Something about a massive cyberattack on multiple east coast cities involving hijacked TV screens and loudspeakers.

I typed it up best I could. Engineers are not renown for their spelling or grammar. However I received zero criticism when I submitted it for review. Word had gotten around that I’d E-hanced my life. Now it seemed like I could do no wrong in their eyes. My skin crawled. I didn’t understand it fully, not just yet, but the more I saw of this phenomenon more my gut churned.

As I prepared to drive home, I got a call from Samantha. My heart stirred, even as I tried to disrupt that foolishness. “Hello?” Her voice verged on euphoria. “I heard the good news! That’s so incredible! To think that the E-Hancer has the power to change the heart of even the most Krion-hardened skeptic! We should get together and celebrate.” I wanted to decline. I told myself I couldn’t, for the sake of keeping up appearances. But really, petty as it is, I hoped I would now have an in with her. Something to bond over, the beginnings of a new connection between us.

Her idea of celebration was to attend a motivational meeting together. Everybody was lined up in rows of folding metal chairs. Some clean cut douchebag in an expensive suit stood at a podium upfront, with crates of E-hancers stacked floor to ceiling on either side and a projector screen just behind him.

“It’s so wonderful that you could all make it again. Welcome, my brothers and sisters! I see we have a number of new faces in the crowd today! Congratulations on E-hancing your life! If each of you could stand up and supply a testimonal about how embracing the E-hancer has improved your life, that would be fantastic.”

It sounded optional, but wasn’t. One by one people stood and ranted excitedly about how they’d been destitute, lonely and lost before they E-hanced their lives, but were now on an upward spiral of wealth, hope, and personal growth. My turn came up. There was no literal spotlight on me but it damn well felt that way. I nervously stood, thought about how to proceed, then began to gush.

“I uh...was a failure before the E-hancer. My girlfriend left me, I was working a thankless job for no pay and Krions were sapping my productivity. But when I...E-hanced my life...everything changed for the better. You might say it revolutionized my life with its dynamic potential, really. Now I’m a full time employee at the local paper, and reconnecting with people I care about who I never thought I’d see again.”

Everybody clapped uproariously. When I looked down at Sam, she was smiling, her lower lip trembled and there were tears in her eyes. More and more I wondered if this wasn’t all for the best. I had the job I wanted. I could for the first time in nearly a decade see a realistic way to get back with Sam. Couldn’t I just let it happen?

The lights dimmed and the projector cast some sort of infographic on the screen. Initially dull sales figures, but then a world map. Red dots indicated locations of motivational centers. The coasts of America were solid red, completely saturated. “Bad news for the Krions!” he joked. Everybody laughed identically.

We watched clips of ads for the E-hancer in Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Italian and French. Everybody clapped after each one even though they were identical except for the language. Then came an animated display of projected international spread over a one year timeframe. Something seized up in my chest as I watched the red dots rapidly engulf the entire map.

The temptation to go with the flow drained from me. Even if it meant I could have Sam. Even if it meant I could have the job and life I always wanted. I could not abide this. Whatever primal instinct causes us to revile filth, illness and decay flared up in me.

I stayed for the rest of the meeting so as not to arouse suspicion and gave no outward indication of distress. Inwardly, I was constructing plans to escape the city. I had my old bugout bag from that prepper phase I went through during Covid. It did double duty as my spontaneous weekend camping gear. That included everything I’d need for perhaps three days on the road. But what then?

“Are you alright? You look troubled. Have you forgotten the blessings of your new E-hanced life?” Samantha clung to my arm, doting on me. It felt inexpressibly fulfilling to receive that kind of attention from her. It’d been so long. But I did not falter.

Smiling wide, I lamented: “Just thinking about all the poor Krion-infested fools out there who haven’t yet E-hanced their lives. If they only knew what they’re missing out on.” Wordlessy, she scooted over and planted one on me. “I really like the new you”, she whispered. No. No, I privately told my heart. Not for you.

Once home, I did some more reading on the website. “Do not disassemble or otherwise tamper with your E-hancer. Doing so could result in serious injury. Do not remove your E-hancer once it is applied. Doing so will result in epileptic seizures, followed by death. By purchasing the E-hancer you acknowledge these dangers and agree to abide by the terms of use included in the box, and described on this website.”

Would’ve been nice to know that earlier. I rubbed my eyepatch. I could see only formless, colored shapes. I hoped that meant my eye was recovering. Then I got to wondering if anybody else knew about this. I turned on the TV and flopped down to catch up on the news. After the tail end of a story about the cyber-attacks on East coast cities, there was some fluff piece about a three legged dog who saved a baby. Then something about E-hance! My ears perked up.

“A number of consumers have come forward to complain about a new health device taking the North American market by storm, the E-hancer. Brainchild of Bruce Hance, the E-hancer is purported to improve health, morality, productivity and general happiness by removing Krions from your body. Watchdog organizations we contacted to get their take assure us Krions are real, a serious threat, and that the E-hancer is a dynamic and promising method for removing them. My viewers will know I’ve busted a lot of scams in the past and I won’t fail to investigate this one. I’ll try on the so called E-hancer and find out for you, the viewer, whether it lives up to the hype.”

I groaned. As expected, when he returned he had only glowing praise for the device and urged all viewers to buy one as soon as possible, “With your last few dollars if need be!” Then, abruptly, the emergency broadcast system cut in. It didn’t take long to guess why. Nor did I stick around to wait for the national guard. From what I’d seen to date, I figured when they finally got here, they’d all be wearing E-hancers and the relief trucks would be loaded with crates of ‘em.

I considered buying a gun on my way out of town. Initially, remembering that there’d be a waiting period and background check caused me to write off that possibility. But on a hunch, I stopped by the nearest gun shop my GPS could find. Sure enough, the guy at the counter had an E-hancer on. Breathlessly, I informed him that dangerous creeps who refused to E-hance their lives were after me, simply for delivering a testimonial to them about how it changed my life.

“Muthafuckin’ Krions!” he shouted, and spat on the floor. “This here’s what you need, brother.” He handed over a vicious looking rifle with a massive scope, and a small pistol clipped to the stock. “The rifle’s for taking ‘em out from a distance. That little guy on the butt shoots rimfire, get ‘em in the leg with that, then when you’re close enough, E-hance that sumbitch.” He laughed, so I did too. When I asked what it would set me back, he waved it off. “On the house, since it’s for a good cause.”

That worked so well, I used it several more times to score free gear. Dehydrated backpacking food, camping gear, jugs of gasoline, a tent, tarps, even an emergency radio. After a while I worried I was pressing my luck too far. With my car loaded up, I headed for the interstate. Recalling what I’d seen at the meeting, I evaluated my options as to where I could go. I parked for the night off the road after covering the car with tarps and a bunch of tree branches.

Sleep was fitful. More weird nightmares. When I woke up I had a dozen voice messages on my phone. A few from Sam, about how my boss called her wanting to know where I was. The rest from my boss. The first few sounded worried and compassionate. Each one after that sounded increasingly suspicious and hostile.

I kept going like that, assuming the worst until I began to pick up government transmissions on the radio. “If you’re receiving this and haven’t yet purchased or worn an E-hancer, desist from doing so and stand by for an emergency state of the union address.” I turned up the volume and eagerly listened.

“My fellow Americans. Those of you receiving this address who have already partaken of the E-hancer product which has spread across the country like wildfire over the past month, I am not speaking to you. From what intelligence tells me, this is some kind of contagion. The necklaces hijack the central nervous system, and afflict the brain in such a way as to stop short any thoughts critical of E-hance, any efforts to remove it or desire to obstruct its propagation. It rewards with high doses of dopamine and seratonin any thoughts supportive of E-hance, about convincing others to try it, and to facilitate its growth around the world.”

It lined up with what I’d seen so far, and it was an immense relief to see that an official effort to put a stop to all of this was underway. “I advise those of you not yet afflicted to seek some out of the way retreat, off the beaten path. Do not speak to anybody wearing the E-hancer. If they approach you and you shoot them, you will not be prosecuted. Be warned that they will try every means of contacting and locating you.”

I looked at the messages on my phone, now rapidly multiplying. Check.

“They will make every appeal to your emotions, to practical concerns, to family obligation.” I searched through the new messages. Some were from my sister and parents. All this time, it never occurred to me. There just wasn’t time to save them.

“Any attempt to spread the word through official channels about what the E-hancer really is and how it works will never make it any further than that, as I guarantee you, whoever you contact in the media will already be wearing one. That is in large part how this spread so quickly without anybody realizing what was happening. They act in support of one another to achieve their singular goal, and gang up in mass opposition to any poor soul who realizes what’s occurring and tries to stop it.”

Another big check. I’d been on the receiving end of that reflex for a while, and could see how it might drive one to simply put the fucking necklace on and be done with it. Not me, though. For the first time in years I felt primally driven to survive. Understanding the nature of what even now was consuming the planet lit a fire inside me.

“While they stop short of murder, as a dead man cannot be E-hanced, you can expect beatings, harassment, slander, stalking, and every manner of coercion so long as you refuse to put it on. By the time this was brought to my attention, the National Guard had already received E-hancers they were told were part of a trial program for increasing alertness and morale. My best information indicates they’re a lost cause. As of this broadcast, eleven military bases have been overrun. The rest are fighting tooth and nail to hold back frenzied mobs carrying armloads of E-hancers.”

A commentator then described massive crowds surrounding a fenced in military base. They were swaying in concert trying to bring the fence down. Various nonlethal weapons were used, including some sort of microwave dish I assumed was supposed to cook ‘em. The ones in its area of effect screamed in pain but did not stop shaking the fence until the beam destroyed their E-hancer, at which point they dropped dead.

“I want to take this opportunity to assure you that I did not take lightly the decision to order troops to fire on US citizens. That is something which could never happen under any other circumstance. If you’ve encountered the afflicted, perhaps you understand why I did it. If not, I accept your judgement. I only wish to stipulate that the lives lost to this incident weigh heavily on my heart. I-”

Static cut off the rest. I fiddled with the dial but couldn’t get it back. It was enough to know that something would be done. My biggest concern from this point on was simply evading detection until it all blew over. I drove until I ran out of gas. Rather than risk refilling someplace “E-hanced”, I dumped the contents of four of the gas jugs into the tank. That would get me through the day at least.

Lunch was some joker’s idea of stroganoff. When somebody says they have to blow chunks, these are the chunks they mean. I choked it down simply to replenish my energy. It was a game of endurance now. I dwelled on what it meant for Samantha. For my family. Tears began to form. I fought them, as I knew if I started to cry now I would never stop. I turned to the radio for distraction.

“In today’s viral internet media spotlight, user BGreen2010 popularized a hilarious meme of what the typical Krion-addled naysayer looks like. Patchy, unflattering facial hair, a generous bulging gut and headwear that went out of style back when the Macarena was relevant”! Canned laughter followed. “Anybody who knows one of these greasy losers will tell you, they’re kissless virgins with no prospects who go around spouting obnoxious lies about the E-hancer because their daddy made them go to motivational meetings when they would rather play Xbox.”

I changed the channel. “Today, congress unanimously approved a new nationwide curriculum which includes a class about the fabulous E-hancer. Every student will be required to have the opportunity to try the most innovative, dynamic invention since the internet. Parents objecting to their children participating in these classes can sign a slip legally obligating them to attend an E-hancer educational interview at their nearest motivational center.”

More of this shit. I wiped my brow, and turned the dial again. “Today Chinese government officials overturned a ban on the wildly popular E-hancer, which is now their single most imported item. In the interest of ensuring their judgement had been impartial, said officials received delivery of a special set of gold plated E-hancers, individually monogrammed and studded with a variety of precious gems. In a subsequent press release, they issued a joint announcement that the single most important area of technological development for their next five year plan will be to ramp up the domestic production of E-hancers to compete with the US and meet their populations’ ravenous demand.”

Fuck that. Give me some good news already. I turned the dial randomly. “Law enforcement officials across the country have begun speaking out about the epidemic of senseless, brutal violence against innocent Americans simply exercising their right to deliver testimonials about the E-hancer. Wild-eyed gunmen who police speculate have been driven insane by Krion excess have assaulted innocent E-hanced citizens in four separate incidents across the country over the past week. A bill has been fast-tracked through Congress which, if passed, will classify such attacks as hate crimes.”

For a while, I sat silently and thought about my options. Every so often my eyes would linger on the little pistol attached to the butt of that rifle. Rimfire wouldn’t even do the job, would it? I’d have to prop the rifle at an angle to make sure….”NO” I blurted out, aborting the entire line of thought. I’d come this far. Lost everything. Samantha. My family. At last the tears flowed freely. But instead of feeding my melancholy, rage began to grow inside me.

I emptied the last of the gas into my tank and headed for what the GPS told me was a fairly remote gas station proximal to where I ought to run out. Now and then a cop car would pull up alongside me and they’d peer in. Upon spotting my E-hancer and vacant grin, they’d peel away and go on about their business. Which I could guess the nature of.

As I approached the station, the needle was just a hair below empty. Which meant I was on my last few miles of reserve. It finally ran dry within shouting distance, so I just pushed it the rest of the way. A fat fella in a button down shirt and cowboy hat came out to greet me, sporting a red white and blue E-hancer. So they came in various styles now?

He seemed on edge, one hand on the holster at his hip until he saw mine. “Pay no mind, stranger. Just had to be sure”. I smiled and nodded. After I’d filled the tank and the jugs, he told me it’d be $107.98. I gave him the spiel about how I was out hunting skeptics. “Ain’t hardly none of those left. I gots to make a living, you know.” I sighed and pulled out my wallet. Three tens, some fives and a bunch of ones totaling less than fifty.

“Just a minute, I gotta get some cash from my car”, I told him. He made me leave my wallet as collateral. Fine by me. I pulled my rifle from the car, took aim through the window and just as he turned to see what was taking me so long, put a round through his eye. First time I’d fired a gun, much less shot anybody. They don’t fly backwards like in movies, just scrunch up their face like they’ve been hit by a train and immediately drop.

I stood there, reflecting on what I’d done. He seemed human enough to me. But as consumed as everyone else with spreading it to the willing, and bullying the unwilling until they caved. With no way to reverse it, I was left with only one option. It felt morally suspect to absolve myself so quickly but having just fucking shot somebody I didn’t feel like hanging around to give it extended thought. I ran in, lifted the gun off him, and drove off into the night.

I hadn’t thought of the cameras. A few days later while listening to the radio to make the drive less of a chore, I heard my name. So naturally I turned the volume up and began to pay attention. “He is seen on the security footage sniping the gas station attendant in cold blood. No motive is known but police suspect he is wearing a faulty or counterfeit E-hancer. If you know this man’s whereabouts, there is a reward of fifty additional E-hancers and booklet of tips for more effective testimonial delivery for anybody coming forward with information that leads to his arrest.”

I tensed up and began to panic. No, calm down. Nobody knows where you are just yet. Haven’t so much as seen another car for hours now. The important thing is to get off the road, isn’t it? Too bad this state is a whole lot of desert and wind turbines. Eventually I spotted an abandoned farmhouse. I got out to open the door, carefully drove the car in, then got out and shut the door behind it. By this point they’d be searching the woods along major highways as a matter of course. But they’d not likely think to search a barn.

I took the chance to unwind and cook a meal. I hadn’t eaten since the gas station. Killing a man has a way of diminishing your appetite. While I ate, I turned on the radio, and dialed it back to one of the emergency channels. “-Erroneous information that you may have heard me deliver during a prior address. Disregard all of it. I was at that time under the influence of Krions. A large, well meaning band of devoted E-hance associates were waiting for me when Airforce One landed to refuel. Of course, they’d shot down the plane which normally refuels us in flight, but it’s for the best.”

No. No fucking way. Could it really...? “I strongly urge those of you out there, hiding like cowards in any dark crevice you could find, to give yourselves up. If you are receptive to E-hancement I can offer you a historically unprecedented no strings attached Presidential pardon. That offer is only good so long as you surrender yourselves some time within the next seventy two hours, in accordance with the law passed this morning which renders illegal the refusal of E-hancement, as well as incitement to refusal. Thank you, and Bruce bless.”

Again, my appetite left me. And for the second time in so many days, I thought of eating a bullet instead. I might’ve too, had I not stumbled across the pirate station. “-hearing this who hasn’t yet been E-hanced, you are the resistance. I can’t tell you our coordinates for obvious reasons. But if you’re receiving this signal clearly, you’re already close. We’ve established a secure base of operations consisting of everyone who manage to make it without...well, you know by now. We need food, clean water, medication and ammunition. But in truth, we’ll take you as you are. Not a whole lot of us left by the looks of it. When the static starts you’ll know you’re getting cold. Sorry we can’t bring you right in, but you know why that is. If you do manage to track us down, we’ll give you a warm welcome. With enough numbers, and the will to survive, we may yet make it through all of this. This message is a recording and will repeat.”

I listened to the full thing hoping for useful details I’d missed, but none of it contained any clues as to where to find them. Relief washed over me, nonetheless. This is what I’d been searching for. I pulled off the false E-hancer and tossed it out the window. I then brought up a map of the area on the GPS and looked for anything nearby that would make a serviceable fort. All I could find was a ranch, so I headed for it.

As I pulled in, men with rifles appeared along the top of the wall. One held up a megaphone and called out “Get out of the car slowly, lay down your guns and show us your neck.” I obliged. “The back too. Some of ‘em pull off the little arms.” I took off my jacket and shirt, then slowly turned in place with my hands up. Once satisfied I didn’t have one on, the gate opened and a group came out to meet me.

“Heard the broadcast, huh? Lucky dog. You’re the first straggler we’ve received in weeks, we were just about to call it good and turn that fuckin’ thing off. Too big of a risk now. What’s that, a Honda? Good, those things are built to last. Come in and eat something, you look run ragged.” I was, too. Somehow it didn’t really hit me until I sat down. Must’ve been running on adrenaline until then.

They really were in a bad way. What little meat they had came from horses they’d found here and slaughtered one by one as needed to keep everyone fed. It still beat the pants off the backpacking food, so I dug in. The guy calling the shots identified himself as Bill and asked me to share a little bit about myself.

“All this took me by surprise. Didn’t know it was happening till it was everywhere. One day I got a call from my ex wanting to meet me for coffee. I mean, what’s suspicious about that? So I go, and there she is wearing one of ‘em, giving me the song and dance about how I ought to try it out. It just progressed from there. Everybody at work had one on, the cops, everyone.” Many nodded silently, apparently having had similar experiences.

A skinny balding fella in blue mechanics coveralls across from me gestured to my eyepatch. “You tried to open one, didn’t ya.” I nodded. He shook his head and sucked air in through his teeth. “Nasty shit in dere. No good tryna open it up. Breaches the terms of service anyway.” I nodded and resumed eating, but as I processed that last bit, my body went cold. “ there a shitter in here or like, an outhouse? Or…?”

Bill told me to go down the hallway and take the third left. I checked all of the rooms on the way until I found the one they were using as an armory. There were my guns, sitting atop a crate. A sliver of doubt nagged at me as I lifted the lid, hoping desperately for anything else. But no. Inside were hundreds of E-hancers. As well as fat stacks of $20s, and paperwork bearing a government seal.

“Hay, you havin’ trouble in there? You fall in or whut?” Faint laughter followed. When I didn’t answer there was a long silence. Then a stampede down the hallway. I shut the door, locked it and barricaded it with the crate. “Now don’t you go turnin’ on us when we took you in son, that’s hardly hospitable. Open the door. Open the fucking door buddy.” They set to pounding on it, throwing their weight against it and even shot a few holes in it until Bill told them he wanted me alive.

Before me on the ground lay the handgun I’d lifted off the gas station attendant to my left, and an E-hancer to my right. Sweating profusely, I looked first at one, then the other, then back again. The only two ways out of this room. “It’s the Krions makin’ you do this, make no mistake about it!” Bill’s muffled voice hollered through the door. “Don’t listen to Krionic lies. Listen to me. Just take a chance on it kid, whatever wrong headed ideas made you run, take a chance you’re wrong about it. If you don’t, you know what I gotta do. I don’t want to but it’s out of my hands. You don’t got long.”

Left, then right. Then left. I ran my hands through my hair. I picked up the pistol and slowly slid the end into my mouth at an upward angle. No, that’s wrong, isn’t it? It’s the brainstem you aim for. Stops your heart and lungs, so you die quicker. The pounding resumed. Dust and wood splinters drifted through the air as the hinges started to come loose.

I thought of Sam. Of mom and dad. Would it hurt them? The way they are now, I mean. I wished I could talk to them before I did it. But the more I dwelled on it the harder it became. It’s all in the sudden, thoughtless impulse. Like ripping off a bandaid. I began to cry out, anxiety eating at me as the seconds remaining in my life counted down.

In one swift motion, I dropped the gun and put on the necklace. I felt a sharp pinch at the base of my neck, then waves of pleasure cascading through me. All of a sudden, I understood. With the veil ripped from my eyes, I could at last see every moving part in perfect clarity, labeled for my edification. Why does anybody run from this? Why did I run? Can’t even remember. It would’ve been so much easier if I’d listened sooner.

“See that sudden look of surprise when their first E-hancer is put on? Absolutely precious. Some parents call it the “Aha”, or “Oh” moment. The official term of course is the E-hancer Eureka, but there’s no harm in taking minor liberties.”

The screen depicts a row of photogenic babies on a blue and gold blanket against a white background. A pair of hands belonging to an offscreen woman places a blue and gold E-hancer collar around their necks, one at a time.

As the collar snaps into place and the flexible probe in the back burrows into the base of the neck, the infant looks at first distressed, then shocked. Finally the eyes glaze over and it begins to smile, helplessly. A surge of dopamine will do that.

“Of course, you’ll want to capture this milestone in your child’s life with a commemorative photo. No doubt such a photo of your own E-hancement hangs on your parents’ wall back home, the source of many embarrassing stories when guests are over!”

Canned laughter. The narrator finally appears. An aged man with poofy white hair, combed back to conceal baldness. He stands against a backdrop of countless two, three and four part photo frames. In the smaller, bottom frames are pictures of various babies. They all have one central, larger frame with the same man’s face with light radiating from behind it.

Bruce Hance. A washed up silicon valley entrepeneur. Serial fraudster before that, with a storied history of investor scams behind him. His one notable invention was a collar containing rudimentary, smartphone grade processing power and an honestly quite innovative brain interface.

His original idea was to market it as a fitness aid. It puts you to sleep, then controls your body, putting you through a full workout every day that you feel none of. Another use he considered was for low wage workers in unfulfilling jobs to be able to perform those jobs while mostly unconscious.

But, some time during his trip to India to negotiate the mass production of the Mark I E-hancer, he realized there was a much more lucrative application for the technology. One which would guarantee 100% market share. Although that’s really the smallest part of it.

Why did Pharaoahs order the pyramids built? To be remembered, and glorified long after their deaths. Some people get off on that, I suppose. Bruce Hance was one of ‘em. To say he succeeded doesn’t begin to describe the extent of it.

As I drive somberly towards the hulking, gaudy structure ahead I pass a video billboard advertising a History channel special, “Who was Bruce Hance?” A bespectacled obese bald man identified only as “Hanceology expert” laments the confusion, misinformation and propaganda surrounding the life of the most important man in Earth’s history.

“Whenever you hear anybody denying what is commonly known about astronaut, quarterback, nuclear physicist and Navy Seal Bruce Hance’s life, check the authenticity of their E-Hancer. Dollars to donuts, they’re dehanced. In that situation you have to assume some degree of krionic influence shaped their opinions of Dr. Hance. Many are just shady degenerates who resent the moralizing effect of the E-hancer and refuse it because they want to indulge in all forms of hedonism.”

He went on, but trailed off such that I couldn’t hear him as the billboard receded into the distance. In the night sky above it, a full moon shone down across the desert, with “E-hance your life with the E-hancer full body krion remover!” carved into it by a multi-decade series of atomic bombings of the lunar surface.

I finally arrive at the Rovind County E-hancer Mega-Motivational Center. A building roughly the size of a football stadium with nearly as much seating inside as well as a McHancer’s if you’re hungry and a Hancebucks if you want somebody’s interpretation of coffee.

The main attraction is an immense theater of sorts with multiple jumbotrons, lasers, and a stage decorated in the most obnoxiously over the top opulent style imaginable. Huge fake gems studding fiberglass pillars, gold toned banners proclaiming the timeless wisdom of Bruce Hance and perfection of the E-hancer, and so on.

I stepped out of my beat up van, purchased from a diehard survivalist because it’s old enough there are no electronics in it beyond ignition, lights and radio. The reverend Thomas Logain greets me. A friend I met through Samantha, before the divorce.

“Out so late again. Skull and dagger stuff?” I smiled, but ducked slightly and peered around as if wary that we were being surveilled. “Krions never sleep, so neither do we.” He grinned, flashing his dentures at me, then invited me inside.

The “we” I refer to consists of myself and six former vagrants the good reverend took in, providing us someplace to sleep, hot meals and so on. Originally out of the goodness of his heart, but since then I’d begun to weave a tale of conspiracy and intrigue to explain why I was frequently coming and going at all hours with those six in tow.

So far as he knows there is collusion among the krion-afflicted dehanced to infiltrate the highest levels of government, only I and my ‘associates’ know about it, and he is helping hide us from the state while we work to identify and take down the infiltrators.

In fact, I don’t know any of these men. I abducted the first from a boxcar. The second from an alley outside a bar, the third from a heroin den and so on. Men nobody would go looking for. Then, I fit them with E-hancers.

Not of the vanilla variety, though. Modified just a bit, so that rather than simply compelling the wearer to sing the praises of Bruce Hance and the E-hancer while locating anybody not wearing one and pressuring them to try it, the device is instead fully programmable and possible to control over the internet.

But, I get ahead of myself. How did things come to this point? I was a family man for thirteen years. Happily married to Samantha, love of my life, who I once believed would never come back to me. I first heard of the E-hancer from her, urgently pushing it on me as the ‘E-hanced’ tend to do.

I declined for a time. But as the bizarre contagion consumed the US and then the world, I decided I could not beat them, so I’d join them. As transparent as it was, it just spread so damned effectively that before long it was the new normal. Instead of being a weirdo if you went around in the E-hancer standard jacket, shilling for the E-hancer to strangers, now you’re a weirdo if you don’t.

Because I gave in, she came back to me. A steep price to pay, but for the only thing I’d ever really wanted. And admittedly, I was happy. It’s difficult to describe the mindset it puts you in. You are constrained in your thoughts, but invisibly.

You just can’t seriously entertain thoughts critical of the E-hancer, of Bruce Hance, or decide that it’s all a scam. “I could”, you might say, “I just don’t want to” or “I don’t because that’s not the case, the E-hancer is the most revolutionary invention in human history” yada yada.

That might’ve been the end of it. Except that a solar flare knocked out roughly a third of E-hancers on the side of the Earth facing the sun when it occurred some years ago. Mine included. All of a sudden, for the first time since I’d put the damned thing on, I remembered what it really is, how it works and why I’d resisted for so long. The feeling of violation is indescribable.

That’s what drove some of the newly liberated to attempt rash, foolish assaults on targets they guessed were in some way related to the plague. That’s still going on. Two or three times a year some immigrant kid tries to blow up a cell phone tower, believing that because E-hancers contain a 5G radio, knocking out cell towers will disable them.

No use, that’s just to call home if the device is tampered with. So many precious, dehanced lives lost that way. Until we got organized. I remember biting my nails, watching news footage from a police chopper chasing down a dehanced man, outed by his own son. Leaping from building to building as the shaky spotlight struggled to stay on him. Finally, a sniper put him down.

Before long, somebody in Turkey cracked the incredibly complicated encryption used in the device, and made their own competing knockoff, the C-hancer. Samantha’s C-hanced now, and it’s because I declined to be C-hanced as well that she left me. The appearance of a competing contagion sent the E-hanced majority into conniption fits. The E-hancer does not tolerate competition. Predictably, the world erupted into war as a result, and soon after that the shortages began.

I snuck backstage, found the storage room the reverend set up with bunks for us, and unlocked the series of deadbolts. Inside, my six loyal “drones” slept. They spend a great deal of time that way as the rest of their down time is spent working out, under the direction of their collars. I need them in peak physical condition for my purposes.

I sat at my desk, array of monitors surrounding me, and pulled up the signal broadcast by the motivational center’s on-site TV station. 247 testimonials about the greatness of the E-hancer and Bruce Hance, interspersed with advertisements for related products and some opinionated talking head style programs discussing social issues. With exactly the slant you’d guess.

“Now personally”, the clean shaven handsome fellow in the suit on the left said, “if some boy comes to my front door because he thinks he’s taking my daughter on a date, he’d better let me have a look at his E-hancer. If it doesn’t check out, he’s gone. No E-hancer, no date. I don’t need my princess getting tangled up with some dehanced loser, or worse yet, a tragically misguided C-hanced immigrant. He doesn’t really love her, as all genuine love comes from Bruce.”

Clapping followed. The blonde woman opposite him in an identical cushioned seat may well have been strikingly pretty, it’s just difficult to tell under all the makeup. Her business suit no less sharp, but a garish pink color, an E-hancer shaped pendant hanging from a thin silver chain around her neck.

“Oh, tell me about it. Look at the typical E-hanced person. Well dressed, fit, attractive and successful. Compare that to the typical dehanced failure of a human being. Jobless, probably homeless, a drug abuser, unmarried and hideous. Who would choose that life? The only thing worse would be to fall for the C-hancer scam.”

An enormous display panel on a robot arm positioned itself behind them, and lit up with a map of the world. “Look at how the C-hancer spreads.” Red dots propagated outward from turkey, spreading like a mold colony in a petri dish until most of the Middle East was solid red. The audience booed loudly.

“Like a virus! Undoubtedly there are krions at work here. But there’s good news! Just look at the progress the true, original E-hancer has made encroaching on C-hancer territory just in the last year!” Green dots now propagated from northern countries down into the Middle East somewhat. The audience cheered and clapped.

What a difference changing the color of dots can make. The E-hancer spreads the same way, they just don’t perceive that as a bad thing because they can’t. Like fish that don’t see the water they’re in. It’s all around them now, somebody born after it consumed the world wouldn’t know anything else. They were raised with it, consider it absolutely normal and because the E-hanced control every major institution around them, it seems authoritative and beyond suspicion.

The solar flare and resulting wars created a unique condition. Suddenly there were millions of dehanced people in the world, and not enough enough E-hancers to “rehance” them due to the shortages. At first most kept quiet as the state hunted down and killed rogue dehanced individuals who fought in vain trying to find some way to reverse the whole mess.

But gradually, more and more people revealed themselves as dehanced. Popular, beloved figures and people in positions of power. A few were nonetheless removed from office, professionally ruined or otherwise targeted, but eventually there were just too many of us. They could no longer get away with such overt measures.

Now it’s been reduced to a sort of intense, lingering resentment that we exist and a deliberately perpetuated social stigma against hiring us, voting for us, dating or marrying us, or otherwise having anything to do with the dehanced except where law or corporate pragmatism requires it.

It beats being hunted in the streets. They even allow us a voice in the media occasionally, though they routinely pick the fattest, ugliest, least successful example to speak for us. Then spend most of the interview talking over him, muting his mic or slipping in passive-aggressive mockery.

You can’t get anywhere in this world if you’re not E-hanced. They see to that quite ruthlessly. They take an even less charitable view of the C-hancer, as the point of the E-hancer is to spread as widely as possible, afflict humanity for as long as possible, and not to be superceded by competitors. So naturally, good ol’ Bruce thought of that ahead of time, and pre-emptively sabotaged would-be rivals looking to poach some of his devotees.

“Bruce himself even predicted this would happen!” the blonde breathlessly exclaimed. “It is written on the original archived E-hancer website, that false Bruces will appear, with their own fraudulent E-hancer imitations. And it’s happened! What more proof does anyone need that Bruce Hance was the most visionary, far-seeing man the world has ever known?”

They then introduced their guest, a “real live dehanced individual”. As ever, they’d gone looking for the most appalling specimen to serve as our public face. A dumpy middle aged fellow, no hair save for a few strands here and there, and a patchy beard reaching partway down his neck.

The suited man was first to address him. “My good man, do you know that in the original archived E-hancer website, Bruce Hance said “He who denies the greatness of the E-hancer is a fool”? Why do you choose to be foolish?” The guest sighed and looked dejected. “No answer, eh? Perhaps you can tell us why you people look like such hopless outcasts”.

The guest elected to answer this time. “You’re the ones who cast us out. It’s tough to find anybody who will hire us if they know we’re dehanced. There’s almost nobody in congress or the senate who is dehanced, so nobody defends our wellbeing. We struggle to find love because E-hanced women are coached to stay away from us lest they be corrupted, and many of us turn to drugs as an escape from the suffering you ca-”

The blonde cut his mic. “You didn’t answer, why do you choose to be foolish? And why are you protesting the right of students to wear E-hancers in schools?” The homely bearded fellow again ignored the barb, but answered the second part.

“That’s not what’s happening. Nobody is forbidding children of the E-hanced to wear their E-hancers to school. We just don’t want you E-hancing the children of the dehanced. You frame it like we’re interfering with the rights of your kids, when what you really want is access to other peoples’ kids so you can-”

Again, cut off. “I’m afraid that’s all the time we have for this unfortunate fellow. Stay tuned for a special report on our charitable outreach efforts!”

I furrowed my brow, then returned to reviewing recent match results. When you’re outnumbered seven to one, trying to fix the problem with conventional methods gets you nowhere. When I finally discovered how to decrypt an E-hancer and reprogram it, a new path opened up to me.

Of course, I could have pulled another C-hancer type stunt. The fellow who created it added in his own additional instructions to make it more competitive. Instead of simply spreading itself and resisting efforts to remove or supercede it, the C-hancer also compels the host to wage total war on those who would oppose its propagation.

That little tidbit made a world of difference. Since then, by bombings, shootings and all manner of other unpredictable acts of barbarism, the C-hanced spread aggressively outward, growing to a sufficient membership that its permanence is all but guaranteed. Much to the consternation of the E-hanced.

The two disturbingly fake looking hosts returned. “Now, let’s go to Turkey, where under military guard, our E-hancer ambassadors are tirelessly working to render aid to these poor malnourished refugees.” The scene changed to soldiers milling about in the background as a woman wearing a blue and gold uniform doles out food and medicine to a line of hungry Turkish children.

She kneels and poses next to one of them, handing the little girl an E-hancer. “This little tyke would have perished if not for the Bruce-like generosity of our organization. Soon I’ll serve her a nice hot meal. But first, she’ll put on her new dynamic, revolutionary E-hancer full body krion remover!”

The woman in white stares expectantly at the little girl, who pushes the E-hancer back into her hands. “I said, she’ll put on her new dynamic, revolutionary E-hancer full body krion remover!” the woman repeated, her stare becoming increasingly stern as she foisted the E-hancer back into the little girl’s hands.

“I don’t want this” the girl stammered. The woman in white laughed nervously. “She doesn’t know what she’s saying. The soldiers sometimes teach them a few English words as a joke.” The little girl tried to back away but was held in place. She protested again. “I don’t want E-hancer.”

The woman in white was silent for a moment, but recovered quickly. “Then you don’t want food or medicine. Is that right?” The girl shook her head and explained that her mother has a severe infected wound and needs medicine. “The E-hancer IS medicine, little one! The best kind! It removes krions! And nourishment for your little tummy is nothing, next to E-hanced nourishment for your heart and mind!”

The scene changed. A man in a stately looking one piece blue and gold outfit with a white band around the neck just below where his E-hancer is attached, sits in a prison cell with a man he informs us is a convicted slanderer of Bruce Hance who tried to burn down a motivational center.

“Even now, he is not truly lost. There is hope for redemption, should he hear the words written on the archived E-hancer website, and partake of the E-hancer krion remover. What’s more, his sentence will be markedly reduced.” He offers the familiar blue and gold collar to the man, sitting quietly, head in his hands. He takes it, tears in his eyes, and slowly raises it to his neck.

Simply creating a competing variant would accomplish nothing. Same outcome, but with a framed picture of my smiling mug in everybody’s home instead of Bruce. Nor would programming an E-hancer to compel the host to seek out and remove E-hancers from others. I’d have to make millions of modified E-hancers for that to work.

Ever since the C-hancer outbreak, world governments keep a close eye on E-hancer manufacturing. It’s locked down so tightly I’d never manage to make any significant number of my own before the E-hanced US government crushed me like a soda can. For years I wracked my brain trying to devise some way for one man, working in secret, to somehow unravel all of it. Like when you pull the hanging thread on a sweater.

The first step was to hide in plain sight. There are constant sweeps for underground bunkers, secret rooms, anyplace someone might be tampering with the E-hancer in violation of the TOS. That’s the official rationale for the raids anyway. By some huge coincidence, all of their targets are either the dehanced, or C-hanced. Not that I detest the C-hancer any less.

The next step was to remove my own E-hancer and reverse engineer it. An active E-hancer will kill you if it’s removed. Releases a potent neurotoxin directly into the brain. But the release mechanism is electronic. If the whole thing is fried instantly, sensors included, it can be safely removed. In fact, that’s the only safe way. Bruce saw the knockoffs coming, but couldn’t predict a solar flare.

I then set about brute forcing the encryption key. Part of why I sought an in with the reverend is that these mega-motivational centers have some serious hardware on hand to drive their 8k jumbotrons, to encode HD broadcasts, that sort of thing. After hours, I’m free to use it for my own purposes. Even so, it took four years to finally crack it.

With that done, I discovered Bruce’s ingenious brain interface went almost totally unused by the native E-hancer software. All it normally does is reward certain behaviors with dopamine and seratonin, punish others with norepinephrine, as well as subconsciously injecting certain marketing slogans and pre-prepared defenses of the E-hancer for use on skeptics.

But once unlocked, an E-hancer can access motor control, vision, hearing, smell, touch, the full gamut. Or enough of it to control a person remotely. I gave extended consideration to what I could use this for. Spying, sabotage, terrorism. No good. If captured, his E-hancer would be removed and studied. They might devise some countermeasure.

The solution turned out to be videogames. Absurd on the face of it, but there’s a method to my madness. After abducting the six vagrants and attaching my modified E-hancers to them followed by a few months of having them exercise rigorously every day, I sent my ‘hired muscle’ out to bag me a skilled programmer.

The E-hancer itself is not intelligent. Doesn’t need to be. We are, and it can control us towards its own ends. Whatever knowledge and skills you have remain intact when you’re E-hanced, but are used thereafter for its benefit moreso than your own.

So it was that the poor fellow I’d discreetly borrowed programmed over the course of two years a simple but appealing online shooter. More importantly, an artificial intelligence tied to the game which records the most effective strategies players have used against it, looking for patterns.

All of the game scenarios are modelled after situations where the odds are stacked steeply against the human players, so very few succeed. Those that do, contribute to an ever growing body of data which can then be used by the AI to command my human drones.

With the heavy lifting done, I wiped the programmer’s memory, removed my modified E-hancer, replaced it with a stock unit, then gave him a mega dose of LSD and left him wandering aimlessly on the outskirts of his home town.

For all he or anybody knew, he’d been given a bad batch, headed off into the wilderness and only barely managed to return alive. I have no idea what’s become of him, and mildly regret hijacking him for my own ends. Although it’s not as if he wasn’t already, by that fucker Bruce.

Sometimes as I’m working, I hear his laughter. Echoing from the past, at the huge mess he’s caused and the impossibility of fixing it. That’s what drives me. One man against the world, a lone candle in the darkness. You think it’s too late to stop it? You think I can’t fuck you, Bruce?

Once the tactical database was satisfactorily robust, I sent my commandos on their maiden voyage to rob a bank. The AI searched only the match recordings from the bank heist scenarios, positioned the plain clothes drones accordingly, then set it all into motion. Masks on, guns out, the whole thing over and done with in six minutes and fifty seven seconds.

The guards didn’t know what hit ‘em. The van was back in the garage before the cops even arrived to the scene. The money funds constant modifications to the van, forged license plates, and of course weapons, armor and other gear for the drones. Bless his heart, the reverend still hasn’t made the connection.

The money also funds cash prizes for the most proficient players. It was necessary to popularize the game quickly. The AI is only as effective as its database is large. I’m already an old man, if I’d had to promote the damn thing myself I’d be dead by the time any significant number of people played it.

I knew money laundering was the riskiest part of it. And I always suspected that’s what would do me in. When I arrived home, the lights were off. It only struck me halfway to the kitchen that I remembered leaving them on when I left. I bolted for the door, but was too late. A smoke grenade came in through the window, then the door was kicked down.

The blue and gold uniformed SWAT team that flooded in through the breach subdued me with little effort. A bag was pulled over my head and after a ride I estimate lasted perhaps thirty minutes, I was herded into a facility of some kind and strapped to a chair by the wrists and ankles. When the bag was pulled off, it was even worse than I’d feared.

All manner of surgical tools and what I recognized to be “enhanced interrogation” devices lay on wheeled metal tables around me. The dank concrete room illuminated by a single bulb, against which my probable torturer stood in silhouette. “Where are your men.”

I blinked, the harsh light making it difficult to focus. He approached, and planted his fist in my gut. I threw up on myself a bit. “I SAID WHERE ARE YOUR MEN!?” The next blow was to my jaw. I spit a bloody tooth out. Then it dawned on me. Slowly, a maniacal grin crept across my face. “If you don’t know,” I muttered, “then you’re already dead”.

Right on cue, I heard muffled gunshots outside. The silhouetted man turned, startled, and pulled out a blackberry. “What the krion is going on out there?” The reply came in distorted by static. Just more gunshots, and the dying wheezes of whoever’d answered. Then an explosion split the steel door into a tangled mess, and before my interrogator could draw his gun, I was covered in his brains.

Cautiously, my six tactically perfect assassins entered the room. Once I was untied, one threw me over his shoulder and began the trek out of the facility. It was a massacre. Gore strewn through every corridor. Hundreds of uniformed men, either blown apart into a mess of entrails or collapsed in a pool of blood leaking from a single perfectly placed gunshot to the center of the forehead.

On the way through the lobby I overhead the dead guard’s radio. A report about unusual properties of the solar flare responsible for the ‘plague of dehancement’. I was bruskly dumped into the van, this time outwardly remodeled to look like it belonged to an E-hancer kid’s Summer camp, and headed for the mega-motivational center.

I couldn’t very well go home. And my last line of defense would be rendered impotent should the computers the AI runs on be destroyed. I had no plans to flee the country, it would be worse than pointless as there’s no place left that’s not crawling with the E-hanced.

I could only hunker down and make my last stand. Luckily, I’d included just such a scenario in the game. I suspected they’d get me in the end, but for every drop of my blood they spill, my drones will spill a gallon of theirs. I already had a good deal of it on me. I picked a bit of jiggling grey matter out of my hair, and flicked it out the window.

My face was all over every video billboard on the way to the church. I feared the worst from the reverend, but it actually worked to my advantage. “Those foul government infiltrators finally discovered you I see”, he said as I climbed out of the van. Thank goodness for the gullible ones. “Yes. They’ll broadcast all manner of propaganda, accusing me of terrible crimes. The whole world will be after me. I cannot guarantee your safety.”

He shrugged. “I’m an old man. Dedicated my life to spreading the good word of Bruce. If I must die defending his legacy from dehanced corruption of the fed, so be it. I can think of no higher honor.” It brought a tear to my eye, for a couple reasons. Soon my drones were situated around the center as called for by the AI. I couldn’t be certain when they’d come, but I knew they would.

I hunched over the computer in the hideout, streaming live feeds from the drones on my monitors. Then I brought up a news channel to see if they would report on the situation, hoping for information I could use.

“Stay tuned for an announcement from the White House! But first, due to widespread shortages of the dynamic, handsome E-hancer full body krion remover caused by international strife, a remarkable alternative has been announced by curators of Bruce Hance’s archived writings.”

I raised an eyebrow. “It seems he predicted this as well! No surprise there. In the event that not enough E-hancers can be made for everyone, there exists a “collar-less E-hancer”. That’s right! All the benefits of E-hancement without any need for the physical device! How does it work? It’s simple! First, the world is ending soon. He didn’t say how soon, it should be assumed that it’s always imminent. Which is why it’s urgent to recruit as many as we can while there’s still time!”

“You see, anyone can be saved, but you must first revere and deeply love Bruce Hance with all of your heart. Devote yourself to him for the rest of your days! If you ever stop, you will receive a terrible punishment. It happens after you die so of course I cannot prove it to you. Likewise with the fantastic reward you will receive if you go to your grave still cherishing Bruce!”

“If anyone in your family objects to your participation in this wonderful opportunity, cut them off. Go out and become collectors of men, recruiting as many of the dehanced as you can with these teachings, so that they might also go out and do the same, exponentially increasing our numbers!”

“Finally, as always, beware the dastardly krions who are behind any information you see and hear which contradicts Bruce’s teachings. Rely not on your own reason to evaluate such claims, but reject them outright and believe only what Bruce has said! That’s all there is to it. Amazing in its simplicity, and power to change lives!”

Next, the special announcement. But...not about my escape? It looked like a clip from some Hollywood summer movie. An immense spherical spacecraft hovered above the white house. Why would they report on this silly scifi shit instead of a terrorist attack? When the reported began speaking it soon became apparent that what I’d just seen was real.

“The world is in turmoil tonight as a vast, mysterious craft of some kind has descended upon the nation’s capital. A joint statement by NASA and the USAF confirm they did not see it approaching Earth, it simply appeared just beyond the Moon, then entered low Earth orbit and began transmitting claims that the solar flare was caused deliberately ahead of arrival as, I quote, “standard procedure to sterilize inhabited planets of possible machine parasites”. The meaning of this statement remains unclear, but for fear of offending our mysterious visitors, the president authorized them to land.”

I began to laugh. At the absurdity of it, first. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. A ruse to draw me out? A distraction, if for some reason they did not wish the public to know of my escape? But she just continued reporting and as I flipped through other news channels, all were reporting the same event. With footage from different angles, not obviously CGI that I could tell.

My laughter intensified, this time because I realized I was saved. Against all odds, the most improbable deliverance. The contagion gripping the Earth must not be unique, but a common problem on planets with intelligent life. So whoever these space freaks are, they must make a point of eradicating it wherever it crops up. Tears rolling down my face, I sat there speechless, overcome with relief.

Of all the work I’d put into planning for every possible contingency, a fucking real life first contact event with actual aliens never entered into it. Who plans for that? Who considers that a realistic possibility? But here it was, unfolding before my eyes. Salvation from above.

A circular seam appears on the underside of the sphere. Then extrudes downward, a cylindrical shuttle of some sort small enough to land on the White House lawn without crushing everything. The president himself, accompanied by a contingent of secret service spooks strides confidently out to the cylinder to make contact with the first intelligent extraterrestrial life known to man.

When it opens, I recoil. In part because they’re hideous, resembling large hairy wingless houseflies but with complex forearms, seven segmented digits to each hand. But also, because of the little grey electronic caps they’re wearing. The creature offers one to the president in what he interprets as a diplomatic gesture. He gingerly places it on his head, and suddenly, his eyes widen. Then they glaze over, and he begins to smile.

  1. ^

    More of my fiction can be read here, should you desire it.