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Saturday, November 6, 2021

SHOWCASE: "An Emergence of Worms" • by George Lockett

 


The coffee machine was totally ballsed. 

There was no ‘out of order’ sign to indicate this, no smoking electrical cord. There was no blockage in the pipe which caused it to spray the aspiring coffee-seeker with muddy, lukewarm water (though that had happened last year and caught her out on three consecutive mornings).

In fact, the machine had performed normally, dispensing a steaming flow of slightly burnt-tasting bean juice, the mechanism cycling through its customary wonky ballet of sound and motion. Only afterwards, adding her third sachet of low-calorie sweetener, did she see the worm.

A flicker of motion round the nozzle had caught her eye. Thinking it a drip, she’d reached for a paper towel to dab it away and wipe down the front—she, unlike the others in the lab, cleaned up after herself—but had drawn up short when she saw a thin, inky body protruding from the coffee nozzle. It was about the length of her little fingernail, the thickness of soggy spaghetti. It swayed slowly, questing this way and that, like it was groping for something out of reach.

Annegret considered this emanation and, as was her habit when contemplating a problem, sipped her coffee. She trailed the electric warmth down her throat until it hit her stomach and cascaded outwards, lighting up the fatigue-darkened reaches of her body. She shut her eyes for a moment as the tingling reached her fingers, reveling in the sensation.

She’d sipped three times before enough synapses were firing to connect observation and action, and she scrabbled over to the sink and spat.

“Are you alright?” The pretty grad student with the bobbed hair and gold wire-frame glasses whose name she could never remember stood in the doorway of the kitchen. Annegret smoothed her hair, sudden self-consciousness overpowering her revulsion. She was still very aware of her mouth, and wanted to spit into the sink, but she forced herself to swallow.

“You look… startled,” the grad student said, a quizzical smile on her face.

“Have you drunk from the machine today?”

The woman frowned. “Not yet.”

“Come look at this.” Annegret beckoned her over.

“Oh my God.” She put both hands over his mouth like the worm might leap into it. “Urgh.”

“Uh-huh,” said Annegret, eying her half-full cup. It was a mock volumetric flask, the now-fading graduations labelled with snippy remarks such as Don’t even think about it and One more sip and then you can talk. One of her colleagues had bought it for her as a joking-not-joking statement of passive-aggression, but she actually liked it. She didn’t like the thought of facing down this worm problem without coffee. The sips she’d taken hadn’t killed her, and it had tasted fine. Good, in fact. Surely...

No, better not.

As they watched, the worm seemed to grow, extruding more of its body from the machine like gunk easing out of a blackhead. Finally, it fell free from the nozzle and landed with a ‘plop’ in the drip tray.

The two of them exchanged a glance, then Annegret took her pen and levered off the tray cover. The mud-murk water was alive, shimmering with the hyperanimate flailing of a dozen or so dark worms.

Annegret heard the wet slap of the grad student retching into the sink. It made her feel weirdly better, like she’d embarrassed herself slightly less. She let the drip tray cover drop back into place.

“We should open up the machine, see how bad it is. Get it cleaned out.”

“Are you kidding?” said the woman. “We should call Building Services and have them take it far away and burn it. Better yet, my friend in Materials has access to a furnace, we could…”

Annegret had had only had two—and a half, she supposed—cups today. Even if she had time to run out for one more from down the street, it would be a long, painful afternoon. She sighed. “Fine. I'll call them. Can you stick a sign on it?”

The grad student poked her tongue out a little bit while she wrote, Annegret noticed. Not for the first time, she found herself wondering if she should ask her out for coffee. Maybe if she remembered the woman’s damn name, she would. But right now, she couldn’t be sure she wasn’t just fantasizing about coffee.

As Annegret turned to go, she hesitated, then grabbed her mug and threw it in the microwave for thirty seconds before heading back to her desk.

 

She almost made it through to lunchtime the next day. She stared at her monitor, trying to massage away a headache she knew could only be exorcised by one thing. She peered optimistically inside the takeout cups on her desk, but she’d hoovered up the last dregs of those an hour ago. She could make another run, but she needed to at least maintain the pretense of getting work done today.

Not that anything was getting done. She’d been snagged on this problem for nearly a week, even when she hadn’t been trying to press through the brain-fogging membrane of caffeine withdrawal. Something was wrong in her code, and it was throwing her modeling results way off. All her tests were passing correctly, and she’d slogged through the full length of her code three times without being able to identify the error. There’d been a moment yesterday afternoon when she’d thought she had it; a sudden, vertiginous feeling where she was able to hold the whole thing in her head, just for a heartbeat. But it had slipped away, leaving her no better off.

Christ, she needed coffee. She lifted her empty mug and pantomimed drinking, hoping the muscle action would jar something in her brain. She’d scrubbed it yesterday afternoon, but the inside still held its thick brown patina, the geological record of a thousand cracked problems.

Suddenly, impulsively, she stood up and marched to the kitchen. She’d felt fine yesterday. She’d even scrutinized her morning bowel movement, and it had been normal—normal for someone who drank seven cups a day, at least. She’d nuke it in the microwave and try not to think about it.

She closed the door behind her, set aside the DO NOT USE – WORMS!!! SERIOUSLY DON’T, EW sign, and worked a pen into the nozzle, trying to scrape out any obstruction. Then she ran the machine, blasted her mug with thirty seconds of worm-killing microwaves, and closed her eyes.

Her senses lit up, the effect sharper for her privation. She tried to hold the feeling, basking in it and taking a further sip whenever it started to die back. Finally, she tipped the last of the cup into her mouth. As she swallowed, something tickled her throat. It felt fleshy and fibrous, in a way that made her think of those tall, slim-stalked mushrooms you find in ramen bowls. Something inside her clenched, and she gagged.

“Have they torched that machine yet?”

She spun. The grad student—Sammy? Samantha?—had come into the kitchen.

“No,” she tried to say, but her voice caught in her throat, and she had to clear it with a sound like someone failing to start a leaf blower. “No. Building Services said they’re sending someone tomorrow.” She glanced down at her mug. “This is tea.”

“You have my condolences in this difficult time.” The grad student smiled. Annegret’s stomach twisted a little. She couldn’t tell if it was a good or bad feeling.

She wished she could remember the woman’s name.

She went back to her desk and resumed staring dully at random spans of code on her screen. Her headache had gone, mercifully, but she felt a horrible flutter in her guts every time she remembered that texture in her throat. Maybe if she gargled some water. Or bleach.

Something in her stomach dropped, a roller-coaster feeling of sudden freefall. Every inch of her skin prickled, and as she watched, the characters of her code shifted and writhed on the surface of her screen. She watched first with nausea, then horror, then comprehension.

There wasn’t some minor mistake in her code that she’d missed, no numbering error or errant bracket or misnamed variable. It was something more fundamental, an error in the assumptions that went into forming the whole model. Normally, she’d be furious, or despairing, but she could see the solution too, maybe a hundred lines of code and some clever re-arrangements. The whole thing was there, hung suspended in her head like a manifold orrery, perfectly calibrated to encode and process a million pieces of data, a hyperobject that should have been impossible for her mind to hold.

She started to type. After a minute, the perfected image began to fall out of focus, rapidly deliquescing into a horrible, discordant mire. She worked faster, turning her fear into a fury that drove her on, trying to stay ahead of the nimble, stalking doom of a collapsing moment that pursued her. It was like trying to sketch an architectural plan of a building from inside while dodging falling masonry.

She was halfway through her code fix when horribly, impossibly, it slipped away from her, informational disharmony rising into a fresh headache so overpowering it drove her slumping to the desk. She fought back tears of pain, of frustration, of knowing the question but no longer being able to remember an answer that moments before had seemed resounding and self-evident.

“Your salvation is at hand.”

Annegret lifted her head as delicately as she could. Sammy-or-perhaps-Samantha was standing by her desk, takeout coffee cup in each hand.

“I was running out anyway and I thought—God, you’re really suffering, aren’t you?”

“Thank you.” Annegret’s throat was full of gravel. The other woman had to press the cup into her hand. Annegret fumbled it against her mouth.

“I’ll, er, leave you to put yourself back together.”

The coffee didn’t help. It didn’t abate her headache even a little bit. She rubbed her neck thoughtfully. She’d had it, for a moment. She’d seen everything clearly.

She massaged her throat. A thought struck her. It was not a happy thought.

She went back to the kitchen. She didn’t use the microwave this time. An hour later, her code was working.


She dreamed of writhing glyphs, characters formed of thin, dark bodies. Their coordinate shapes and individual movements spoke to her. It was like having ten thousand conversations at once, and not only being able to follow them, but seeing, really seeing, the person at the other end. She’d never had a conversation this true and unobstructed with anyone else. It was totality.

They spoke to her of an emergence, of great works to come. There was so much they had to show her. They wanted her to see truly, totally, like they did. But they needed her help. And she wanted to help them.

She woke in a sweat, the afterimage of the sigils still hanging in her eyes.

She got to the lab early, hoping, desperately hoping, that Building Services hadn’t made it to the kitchen yet. The coffee machine was still there, lurking in the half-light. She pressed the catch and opened the top of the housing.

The inside was alive, a thick mass of black worms pressed together in the hollows of the machine. In the quiet, she could hear them moving. Their churning quickened as she slipped her hand inside. They were excited, reaching for her.

She plucked one from the crush, peeled it free. It was moist and a little spongy, its skin yielding under her fingers, sliding around something hard at its core. It stopped its motions, slackening and stretching out, ready. She pressed it onto her tongue. It tasted bitter. She let it linger for a moment before she swallowed, feeling the worm slide down her throat, letting its truth flow into her.

As she took hold of another, the mass parted, revealing what lay beneath: a clutch of white eggs, so fine they might have been dust.

She would help them. But their truth was far more than she could carry alone.

“Hey, Samara.”

The pretty grad student with the glasses turned, smiled that smile.

“Thought I’d pay you back for yesterday.” Annegret set the takeout cup on Samara’s desk. Samara raised an eyebrow.

“I don’t know—I’ve seen what this stuff does to you.” She winked. As she swallowed, a look of alarm flashed over her face, like she about to choke, but it passed quickly. Annegret put a hand on Samara’s shoulder. Samara looked back at her, a little dazed, everything coming into focus around her. Annegret smiled.

“Come on,” she said. “We have a great deal to do.”

_________________________


George Lockett is a writer, designer, and consultant for video games and interactive narrative. His work has appeared in such places as Fireside Magazine, sub-Q Magazine, and Andromeda Spaceways. He can be found at https://www.georgelockett.com/contact or on Twitter @mastergeorge.

 





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