Touched: The Muse

Alisha stepped into the coffee shop and scanned the room, checking the time on her phone twice as she did. She was halfway through a scathing text when one of the baristas spoke.

“There’s a guy upstairs, Brad, that said he was waiting for someone. Is that you?”

“That would be me.”

“You want a coffee or pastry before you go up?”

“No, thanks, I won’t be staying long.”

Alisha made her way past tables, no two of which were alike, occupied by caffeinated customers engrossed in books, conversations, and laptops before climbing the stairs to the smaller, quieter upper level. Brad was sitting at the back in a booth with red and teal padded cushions which looked harvested from the derelict remains of a 1950’s diner. He gave a short wave when she looked his way. She scowled and gave a light snort before marching over and sitting down heavily into the side opposite him, only giving the scattered notebooks and papers on the table a brief glance.

“Five weeks.” said Alisha.

“Alisha, look, I…”

“Five! Weeks?!” Several heads turned to look their way. “Don’t you ever go silent on me for five weeks again. You better have one hell of a good explanation for the expense reports you’ve been submitting while ignoring all my emails and calls.”

“Look, I’m sorry. Really.” Brad held up his hands as he nervously eyed the other patrons. “But can we please just talk, quietly? I can explain everything.”

“Don’t think for a moment that I’m going to put up with this shit from you again. You write good articles, but I won’t hesitate to put your ass out on the street. We can survive without you.”

Brad dropped his eyes and nodded. “No, you’re right. I should have responded sooner.”

“Damn right. Now tell me what you got for me, and it better be the best story you’ve ever had. You’ve got fifteen minutes before I leave for dinner. Sarah’s watching Haley — you know how hard it is to get her as a sitter these days with her getting ready for college — and I’ve got a date that I’m not missing.”

Brad nodded, eyes rapidly searching over the disarray before him. He settled on a report, then handed it to her.

“Pendergast Pharmaceuticals has been testing unapproved, lethal, experimental drugs on people without their knowledge for years, and the government has been helping them cover it up.”

Alisha’s eyebrows shot up and stayed there. A steady rain began, turning the small window beside them into a distorted black sheet as she quickly flipped through the pages before looking up.

“I sent you to research Whitman’s campaign contributors. What is this?”

“I go where the story nose, err, goes.”

“Alright, you have my attention.”

“One of Whitman’s campaign staffers confirmed that American’s For A More Promising Future made a huge contribution just like we suspected, but the super pac isn’t a shadow shell of PenPharm, or at least not yet. It is, however, an American shadow shell for Agridyne, which, after it bought a German pharma-corp to break into the market and to get the chem producer they owned, became PenPharm’s largest competitor in the Asian market. I’m sure plenty of people would be interested to know that Chinese companies are funding US political candidates, not the least of those being the incumbent independent senator who’s fallen far behind in the polls against Whitman.   

“Anyway, an Asian stock-market guru a friend of mine tipped me off that there was a lot of odd fluctuations in the agriculture market. He said that rumors of a buy-out are beginning to surface. My best guess is that PenPharm suggested to Agridyne, off the record, that a generous donation to Whitman’s campaign would benefit them at the bargaining table.”

“That’s incredible,” said Alisha. “Do you have sources on those and a write-up for me?”

“Oh, umm…” Brad flipped open his laptop and rummaged through files. “Yes. Sent. The sources are a bit shaky, or at least they will appear so as they are blatantly biased, but they’re reliable and they’ll hold up in court if it comes to that. I think the story will have enough shock value to keep people from focusing on that too much, and the conservative pundits will accuse our sources of being biased regardless. But worry about that later, this story runs much deeper.”

This was big. Perhaps too big. Being a small online publication they only had one lawyer on retainer, and whereas he was fine when it came to handling small disputes, she wasn’t so sure he would be up to the task of taking on a heavily staffed and funded corporate legal team.

“Okay,” continued Brad, “so I’m thinking to myself, what if this isn’t an isolated practice? PenPharm has bought up seven corporations directly over the past five years, and another thirteen indirectly through their subsidiaries, not to mention countless shadow shell corporations set up all over the world. So I did some digging, and it paid off.”

Brad pulled a print-out with fifteen names on it from one of the stacks and handed it to Alisha.

“Most of the corporations PenPharm scooped up over those years weren’t nearly as well versed in covert corporate operations and bribes as Agridyne was. These fifteen made contributions either directly to a candidate PenPharm supported or to one of their known affiliate super pacs, depending on the size of the donation they were making. Most of those on this list ended up giving to both, and the candidate in question was always a conservative who was a strong supporter of corporate deregulation and a strong denier of manmade environmental-damage. I’m a bit surprised that no one put this together before me.

“How many of these candidates won their election?,” asked Alisha.

“Eleven out of twelve.”

Alisha shook her head. “When are people going to wake up to the fact that we’re living in a oligarchy run by corporations and demand change?

Brad shrugged. “I’m going to get a quick refill. You want anything.”

Alisha tapped a finger against her phone, trying to decide what she should do.

“Yeah, here,” She handed him some money. “Get me a latte.”

He nodded and headed downstairs. Alisha unlocked her phone and texted an apology to her date. She told him she was going to be late due to work, but would be along shortly and asked if he would be willing to move their reservation back an hour. He wouldn’t be happy about it, but he’d understand.

Brad returned with their drinks. The black contents of Brad’s mug steamed in front of him as Alisha sipped at her froth.

“So I’ve got someone digging into more of PenPharm’s purchases, but I’d bet that if we look hard enough we’ll find that every company bought made a substantial political donation as a stipulation of the buyout.”

Alisha nodded. “It’s real smart. Allows them to contribute more directly to the campaign than they’d legally be able to do otherwise.”

“Exactly, and that’s only one way we’ve uncovered that they’re indirectly funneling funds into these races. I found another instance of them buying sizable quantities of products through corporate associates at inflated prices. Not so egregious an overpayment to tip off someone who wasn’t looking for it, but definitely not what a company the size of PenPharm pays for items in those numbers from friendly business partners. I asked some of our interns to look into it quietly, so if they’ve been a bit behind that’s on me.”

Alisha frowned. “I put them at your disposal because I trust that you know how to put them to good use and I don’t need to be approving every little thing that goes on, but I hope you’re getting to an explanation here because all this subterfuge with using my resources while leaving me out of the loop is feeling sketchy as hell.”

“You’re just being paranoid, I promise.”
“It pays to be paranoid sometimes. So why all this maneuvering behind my back?”

“I’m getting to it, I promise, but l need to walk you all the way through it. Things…start getting weird. I assume you still want to hear about the lethal drug testing, right?”

Alisha sighed. “Fine. I’m listening.”

“Alright, so working off the covert campaign contribution hypothesis the next logical step was to look into who they were backing and see where that took me. Most of those they got elected would make for a good conflict-of-interest story, but that wasn’t getting me any deeper, and my gut was telling me there was something there. Eventually, while perusing news articles I stumbled upon an odd story.

“One of the state health commissioners that PenPharm had supported, Kim Donavan, suddenly cracked down on and closed a bio-chemical factory owned by a company called Envirovanced under her jurisdiction for unspecified safety violations and illegal activity. Nothing was ever proven conclusively, and the town was unanimously against the closure as it put a substantial number of locals out of work, but by the time they got out from under the suspensions and inquiries, the factory owners said they just couldn’t get it profitably up and running again. The legitimacy of those claims was highly questionable, but all the focus and ire landed squarely on the commissioner’s shoulders, and when a recall was issued she got crushed. Shortly after, she and her family left the state entirely and changed their names.

“It didn’t make any sense. Even if we weren’t talking about a politician who was clearly in the pocket of PenPharm, why would she act without reason against the interests of his constituents?”

“Unless she knew something they didn’t,” offered Alisha. “Something she couldn’t tell anyone because she couldn’t prove it or because her own hands were so dirty she knew she’d go down too.”

“Exactly,” said Brad, “and hell, PenPharm probably has the resources to convince the public her hands were dirty even if they weren’t.

“It took me awhile to track her down, but I finally caught up with her. As soon as I told her who I was she told me never to call again and hung up. I texted her my email address in case she was ever willing to speak with me, but I expected it to be a dead-end. I tried back the following day, but by then the number had been disconnected. Then a few day later I got an anonymous email. I tried to track it back to her, but I never could. All the same I’m sure it was her.

“The email just said, ‘Emily M. Bonner-Dobbs. Flu Shots.’. It wasn’t hard to find out who she was. Honor student, cheerbudeeder

“A what?” asked Alisha.

“A cheerleader.”

“That’s not even close to what you said the first time.”

“Well, anyway, like I was trying to say. Cheerleader; honor student and valedictorian hopeful; volunteer at the hospital and local church; and liked by everyone up and down the social ladder according to interviews. She collapsed in class one day, fell into a coma, and died the next day. There was no explanation. The doctors said her symptoms didn’t fit any disease or condition, she tested negative for all street drugs, and the initial autopsy didn’t come up with anything either.

“The parents couldn’t accept that their daughter had just died of nothing, so they paid a separate medical examiner to do another autopsy and discovered what was officially disclosed only as a ‘chemical anomaly.’ Once the parents had something to latch onto they ran with it. They hired a private investigator, and leaned hard on every resource they had to get an official investigation underway.”

“I remember reading about this,” said Alisha. “They found that the flu shots had been contaminated or had gone bad somehow. I remember the whole discussion getting derailed and repurposed as part of the anti-vaccination movement.”

“That’s the one. What they weren’t saying in those reports though was that Emily was the only healthy person that died. All the other people who died had been old and sickly, or had some other serious health condition, and so when they died no one looked very hard at their passing until the investigation put some of those pieces together.”

“But wasn’t it determined that made sense?” asked Alisha. “They said the tainted batch was fatal to those in weakened states, and the girl had some kind of reaction to it or her dose was more contaminated, right?”

“That’s what was getting reported, but when I looked through them I found that the actual reports didn’t conclude that. In fact, the whole investigation came to a kind of bureaucratic standstill. Everything became mired in a permanent state of review, or pending approval, or encountered some other kind of similar roadblock. Nothing ever really came of it, and by the sound of it a number of settlements were quietly handed out along with some industrial strength NDAs. After that, people started to forget about it.

“Now get this, when I tired to look through the coroner’s reports, all the records were still sealed.”

“So either somebody thinks there’s criminal wrongdoing,” said Alisha, “or they’re using that as a cover to keep it sealed indefinitely.”

“Exactly. I got ahold of the Bonner-Dobbs family and they gave me the name of the examiner they used. They made me promise that I would tell them before anyone else if I found anything out. They told me they never accepted a settlement because after reading the NDA they were certain someone was hiding something from them, and they wanted to leave that door open, despite the threats made against them for turning down the settlement.”

“And they were right.”

“Yeah, they were. I arranged a meeting with the examiner. It took quite some convincing to get him to talk to me. He was scared, but wouldn’t say why, not that it took a lot of creativity to imagine why. After a couple of days he agreed to meet me at an abandoned park on the outside of town, real paranoid stuff. You would have liked him.”

“Real funny.”

“I’ll admit, it did feel like we were being watched, but I couldn’t say why. I never saw anyone that looked suspicious. Anyway, he asks me if I’ve ever heard of a chemical called baraxylidimide. I hadn’t, and asked if I should or should look it up. He told me not to bother because no one had because it didn’t really exist. It’s a bizarre synthetic compound that wasn’t officially being used in anything, but it showed up in a tissue sample taken from Emily. He said it was just dumb luck that he even caught it. The initial lab results from the tissue samples were weird, but he couldn’t identify what he was seeing, so he took it to a friend in another lab who had a industrial spectrometer. That guy had seen the chemical once before when he had done consulting work for Envirovanced. Now guess who owns them?”

“PenPharm,” whispered Alisha.

Brad nodded.

“So a toxic, proprietary chemical made it’s way into a batch of flu vaccines in the same town. How? Were they made in the same location?”

“No, I checked into that. Neither the factory nor Envirovanced made any component of the vaccines. There was no plausible explanation for how baraxylidimide could have made it into them accidentally, which leaves us with the only reasonable conclusion: it was put there intentionally.”

“That’s a pretty wide logical gap you’re jumping. Do you have something concrete to back it up?”

“Oh yeah, and you’re really going to want to see this.”

Alisha expression contorted. “Shit. You’re right, I do.”

“What’s wrong?” asked Brad, confused.

“Nothing, it’s just…never mind, don’t worry about it. Just give me a few minutes.”

Alisha stood up and walked away from the table, texting an apology that would not be well received. This wasn’t the first time she’d canceled dinner plans with this guy for work, and she seriously doubted she would get a third opportunity to, but this story was too important. She made the message as apologetic as possible, turned off her phone, and ordered sandwiches from downstairs. When she returned, everyone but Brad had cleared out.

“Alright,” said Alisha after sliding back into the booth, unwrapping her sandwich as she passed the other to Brad, “let’s hear what you’ve got.”

“So the M.E. scribbles down a name and address half-way across the country for me, then tells me to never contact him again. The earliest flight I could get on was the next morning, so I spend some time digging through online periodicals on PenPharm. I came up with some really strange information about the founder, but I’ll come back to that later.

“The address was an old but well maintained house, and as soon as I pulled up to it an old man stepped out onto the porch. He was hiding his handgun well, but it’s not the first time I’ve seen someone do it. Needless to say I took things real slow. I got out and kept both of my hands on the top of the car while I talked with him from there. When I told him who sent me and that I was asking about Envirovanced and PenPharm he told me to shut up and get inside.

“He apologized for the gun, laying it down on a side table as we both took seats across from each other in the den, but always had it within easy reach. He wasn’t much for small talk. As soon as he sat down he said he knew why I was there and what I thought I was after. He asked me to tell him what I’d learned so far. I ran him through everything I’d gathered, and he seemed pleased, especially when I told him about what I’d found while waiting for my flight. The original founder of PenPharm, Dr. Devon Pendergast, had been performing a series of bizarre rituals with other members of a secret occult society he had formed.

“Few records of what they were doing were ever found. Most were burned, but from what little was recovered, and from a frightened member who had come forward to expose the group’s activities, they learned Pendergast was searching for some kind of unspecified knowledge from ‘beyond’, and was trying to summon a being to give it to him.”

“What are we talking about here,” asked Alisha, “Demons or something? And what does any of this have to do with tainted vaccines?”

“No, not a demon, just…some unspecified being, and you’ll understand in a minute how they’re connected.”

“The old man told me that he was in charge of the PenPharm research branch responsible for the tainted vaccines.”

“Oh my god,” whispered Alisha.

“Yeah. For a minute there I thought I had wandered into a trap and he was going to go for his gun, but he just waited. I didn’t know what to say, so eventually he went on to explain. The other founders of PenPharm immediately distanced themselves from their spooky counterpart, but secretly shared his interest in communicating with beings which Pendergast called The Divine. They believed he had succeeded in opening a line of communication with one of them before he died, but that it took a special state of mind to be able to listen across the distance between the worlds. At first they just sought out people who had achieved these states of mind, and actually managed to find a small number of them over the years. Real eccentric types that had suddenly developed creative skills seemingly out of nowhere, but whom eventually mentally deteriorated, losing the ability to speak before they went insane and died. But whatever information they were after wasn’t coming quickly enough, so they started performing experiments to try to chemically induce this terminal art degree.”

“That is crazy, messed up shit,” said Alisha. “So they came up with this chemical…”


“And then they slipped it into a batch of vaccine to test it on people without them knowing.”

“That’s how the old man told it, yeah. He said they used connections from people in positions of power in the government — people they had paid to put in those positions — to get them the resources they needed to pull it off, and to cover it up when things went wrong. It explains why commissioner Donavan couldn’t come forward directly. She must have found out, but had serious pressures from up above to keep quiet or take the fall herself.”

“Okay, stop there.” Alisha, held up her hands. “This is getting really crazy, so before I hear another word of it I want to see some solid proof. We’re wandering into lawyer hell. They’ll bury us under gag orders and slander charges. If you don’t have something solid none of this is ever going to come to light.”

“You know I know all that. It’s why I was gone so long.”

Brad lifted a large metal rectangular box onto the table. Clicking off the locks, he tossed it open and pulled out a thick file.

“These are official Envirovanced lab records detailing methods, subjects, and deterioration progression from all the experiments. It even details the plan to swap out baraxylidimide for flu vaccines, and the internal directive from PenPharm to do it. He spent years and a lot of money gathering all of these.”

Alisha flipped through page after page. “This is incredible! I can’t believe it’s actually true. This might actually be enough to go public. This would be the story of the century!”

“I’ve got more.” Brad pulled a sealed pair of clear tubes from the box. “Unused flu vaccine syringes filled with baraxylidimide, leftovers from those used to kill all those people.”

Alisha carefully took the tubes from him and slowly turned them over in her hands, staring at the small syringes they held.

“Everything we need is here,” said Brad. “Meeting locations, ties between the companies, secret memos, plans to place corporate loyalists into governmental positions of power, and everything else you can imagine.”

Alisha eyed the stacks of evidence like they were made of gold, running her hands over all of them as she did. Her excitement faltered, replaced unexpectedly by a deep concern.

“Why wouldn’t your source take all of this to the authorities or the press himself?”

Brad’s brow furrowed deeply. “I, um…asked that too. He said he had kids and a granddaughter to think of.”

“Okay, but what makes giving it to you any different?”

“Honestly…I’m still not certain.” Brad closed his eyes. “I can’t tell you how much I wish I was. All he’d say was that he was waiting for the right person to give it to.”

Brad went silent. When he opened his eyes, they stared at the table as he held a hand over his mouth. The rain against the window continued to fall.

“Alisha…he killed himself.”

“What! He killed himself?” Her eyes searched his. What the hell had she gotten him involved in?

“Right there in front of me. After he gave me this box and explained everything, he picked up the gun and…oh God, it went everywhere. I couldn’t hear anything but my own heart pounding for I don’t even know how long. I just grabbed everything and ran. I can’t believe I didn’t get pulled over, I was a mess and nearly got into several accidents on the highway as I made my way back to the dareblort.”

No wonder he kept screwing up words, she would have been a mess too after watching someone kill themselves. She needed to get him to see a psychiatrist first thing in the morning, he was probably still in shock or had PTSD or something.

“Hey.” Alisha reached out and griped his arm. “It’s okay. It’s a hard memory to relive, and an even harder experience to endure.”

Brad nodded silently. Alisha gave a troubled smile.

“I reported it from a payphone at the airport right before I got on my flight.”

“We’re going to need to get you in front of a lawyer tomorrow, and then a psychiatrist. I can think of a thousand ways leaving like that will come back to haunt you; and all the more so when this comes to light. I wouldn’t be surprised if they claimed you killed him for this.”

“Okay, okay, you’re right, of course. I shouldn’t have left like that, but that’s going to have to wait until tomorrow. There’s more you need to hear.”

Brad pulled the last folder out of the box.

“There was a reason Envirovanced and PenPharm continued their testing, even when they knew how dangerous it was for both them and their victims. They had one success, or at least they thought they did. One of the people injected developed the symptoms they had been trying to induce. They called her, and the others like her, ‘Touched’ in the report. Despite all their efforts they were never able to produce another person who showed symptoms after her.”

“So the unlucky ones died,” said Alisha, “and the other unlucky ones died soon after. What were they looking for from these ‘Touched’ people, anyway?”

“An oracle of some kind. Once these people became Touched they started obsessively creating something. Music, art, clothing. Each one of them made something different. The Touched woman in the study spent her every waking hour crafting the most intricate dress I’ve ever seen. Here, take a look.”

Brad pulled out a photo and passed it to Alisha. She studied it.

“Alisha, do you trust me?”

She looked up from the picture and cocked an eyebrow. “Yes, I trust you. We’ve worked together for years.”

“You didn’t trust me when I was gone these past five weeks.”

“Yeah, well, you said I was right and that you should have called in. You should have trusted me to understand what you were after.”

Brad nodded. “You’re right, I should have trusted you more then, but I’m trusting you now, but I need you to trust me too, because I’m going to tell you something that’s going to sound completely crazy and I need you to believe me when I say it’s true.”

Alisha’s stared back at Brad’s pleading expression with eyes full of worry. “Alright.”

“You have to mean it, Alisha. I’m not kidding.”

“Yes, I promise! Just get to it already!”

Brad took a deep breath.
“The PenPharm execs believed that these Touched people could communicate with beings from outside our world…and I think they’re right.”

Alisha’s expression went blank and her mouth came open, but she bit off the words and composed herself. “Go on.”

“PenPharm had six recorded cases of individuals becoming Touched like this. Five natural occurrences they uncovered, and one induced from the baraxylidimide. All six produced an elaborate and intricate work of art, spending every waking moment on it until they stopped being able to speak, their minds decayed, and they died. Each creation seemed to build on the last in at least some way, even though none of the six ever met, nor had any of them seen any of the pieces that had been created before theirs. PenPharm believe that each piece of art was a part of the message sent from the other side, but they could never put it together, and you can imagine the kind of money and resources they had to throw at a problem like that.”

She certainly could, but wasn’t as sure she could keep going down this line of reasoning with him. Still, she’d at least hear him out. She’d promised him that much, and certainly owed it to him for all he’d done.

“Instead of flying back here I flew out to my aunt’s farm. I felt I needed disappear for awhile, and she’s always more than happy to see me. This time she could tell something was wrong, but she was never one to pry, though I wish she had been because I just couldn’t bring myself to talk about what happened, even though there was nothing I wanted to do more.

“Anyway, since I couldn’t get the pain out I distracted myself by pouring over those six pieces of art to see if I could make any sense out of them. I knew it would be a waste of time, but somehow it started making sense to me. After a day or two I started seeing patterns where no one else had. I could see enormous, complex arrangements of coded information hidden in connections that spanned large portions of all six pieces. I don’t know how to explain it. It still doesn’t make any sense to me how I saw it, but once I did I started writing it all down. It took me days to decipher and transcribe all the information encoded in there.”

“What was it?”

“Some kind of formula, an algorithm really. I didn’t really understand what any of it meant, I was just able to see and transcribe it. I have some friends who are professors at Duke, and they were able to get me in contact with some professors from the math and computer science departments. I tried to pay them for their time, but as soon as I showed them what I had they were more than happy to donate it. The math professor told me that parts of the algorithm used what appeared to be more advanced amalgamations of several unsolved equations, each of which had millions in reward money through various academic endowments waiting for anyone who could solve them. He believed the answers to all of them were in there, and then whatever greater equation that could link them together.”

“Millions mean nothing to a company the size of PenPharm,” said Alisha. “What can those equations do that so valuable?”

“The professor said we had what might be the single greatest scientific discovered of the century, but the math isn’t what was so important. The three of us worked together almost without sleep up until two nights ago turning that massive algorithm into computer program.


“It’s like…a real crystal ball. It can answer any question you ask it, but not like Googling something. It knows things, things that no one could know. Your thoughts, your dreams, the number of 6-packs in a display at liquor store a hundred miles away, anything! Alisha…it can predict the future.”

“That’s crazy,” said Alisha flatly, “and not possible.”

“I can prove it. Think of a number.”

“Are you serious?”

“Okay, that sounded dumb. Here.” Brad tore a sheet of paper out of a notebook and handed it the Alisha along with a pen. “Write down anything, random words, number, drawings, anything, just don’t let me see it.”

Alisha sighed, considering Brad for a long moment, then shrugged and started writing. After a few moments she finished. “Now what?”

“Just hang onto it, and give me a minute.” Brad open his laptop and started typing. After a few minutes he clicked enter and turned the screen around.

“Is this what you wrote?”

Alisha inspected the screen. “No.”

“What? Really?”

“Yes, really. Look, Brad, I’m worried about you. I think everything that’s happened has you a little mixed up. We’ll get you to a doctor and get you sorted out.”

“Just give me a minute, it’s just hard to properly input the data sometimes, I’ll get it.”
Alisha sat silently back in her seat, worry clear on her face as Brad clicked away on his laptop, expression intent. After a few more minutes he turned the screen around again.

“How about now?

Alisha inspected the screen.

“That’s what you wrote down, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean anything. There could have been a camera somewhere watching me as I wrote it.”

“Really? You think this is a joke?”

Alisha sighed, crossing her arms as she shook her head with closed eyes. “I don’t know, but if the choice is between that and software that can tell the future, I’m going with the one that makes sense.”

“Alright, fine. This time, think of something. A dream, something you’ve never told anyone, but just keep it in your mind okay?”

“Brad, look, can we—”

“Alisha, please! Just do this one more thing for me.”

Alisha’s scowled. “Fine, but this is it, no more after this.”

“Just think of something.”

Brad went back to typing. After a few minutes he turned the screen around, but this time there was nothing there.

“In case you thought of something very personal, I figured I’d let you be the only one to see it. Just click enter whenever you’re ready.”

Alisha clicked enter without preamble, then inspected the output. Her hand came to her mouth.

“Oh my god. How did you do that? You couldn’t have known. No one knows that.”

“It wasn’t me.” Brad clicked the esc key then turned the laptop around again. “I’m not lying, and there’s no ‘trick’, this is real, and there’s something more. Me and the professors would sit around campus and ask what was going to happen over the next hour, and it would tell us everything. It was never wrong about anything. The only times it appeared to be wrong were because we we’re still imperfect with our questions.

“We started asking it about days, weeks, and then months into the future. We didn’t have anyway to know if it was right, obviously, but it was spooky the kinds of things it would say. And then…then it got even weirder.

“There were things it said it wouldn’t tell us. Not that it couldn’t, but that it wouldn’t. I have no idea what to make of that. Spooky clairvoyance I could live with, but what we discovered after that left us all shaken. After a certain date nothing was coming back, no data. At first we thought this was just something else that it wasn’t willing to tell us, so we asked, but it said it could tell us. We asked what comes after that date, and it said ‘nothing’”.

Brad waited.

“Nothing?” said Alisha. “Is that supposed to mean something?”

“Think about it. Nothing. After that date there is nothing.”

Alisha shook her head. “I’m not getting it.”

“There will be nothing left.It means the end of everything. This is the knowledge Pendergast was after, it has to be. This is what was so important he and PenPharm were willing to kill for. Something reached across the beyond to warn us, which I believe can only mean that there’s a way to stop it.”

“I believe you’re right.”

Both Alisha and Brad turned sharply at the unexpected voice. The man sipped coffee at the table against the opposite wall. He was of average built, thirtyish with an olive complexion, and wore a sharp, tailored suit. He turned to look at them with striking blue eyes.

“Who the hell are you,” asked Alisha, weary and annoyed.

The man stood slowly, revealing an average height, then sauntered over to their table, stopping to stand a few steps away.

“When my grandfather was still a young man, a peculiar thing happened. During a meeting with the other founders he collapsed. He spasmed and twisted on the floor, staring wide-eyed at nothing while gibbering nonsense. At least that was the account the board members gave, all of which were medical doctors just like my grandfather, but he remembered it differently.”

“You’re Pendergast’s grandson,” said Brad. “You’re the director of PhenPharm.” “He told me he was transported to a place in the cloud and stood before a being of unfathomable immensity — one of The Divine. It only said one thing to him, ‘The Nothingness nears,’ but my grandfather told me that more came through in those three words than he could have written in a whole book. He understood the true weight of those words, and the responsibility that had been laid at his feet by their utterance. He woke up in a hospital bed a moment later, and much of that depth of understanding was lost, but from what remained he knew that seven other would need to hear The Divine before it could help us.

“My grandfather was a chemist and a scientist to his core. Calling his work ‘occult rituals’ and were just labels the ignorant and superstitious gave his work when he told the other board members he was developing a chemical which would allow those who were chosen to speak to The Divine. They pressured him to stop, so he was forced to move his research underground, but now every sacrifice he made has been vindicated.”

“The sacrifice that he made?” spat Alisha. “According to these records he murdered hundreds of innocent people, and so did you! You’re both monsters!”

Pendergast stared at her, those cold blue eyes of his so empty and devoid of emotion that despite herself she looked away. He then turned to Brad.

“You learned of six of the seven who were to bring forth The Divine Word, and how they would eventually and regrettably succumb to their own unique and unparalleled creativity, but did you figure out who the seventh is?”

“I’m guessing it’s you.” said Brad.

Pendergast slowly shook his head. “No, Brad. I’m sorry tell you, but it’s you.”

Brad staggered in his seat. “What?”

“Did you not notice how your words have already begun to fail you? Didn’t you wonder how you could see the pattern woven into the infinite complexity that was there between each piece created by the other six?”

“This is all bullshit! Brad, don’t listen to him,” chided Alisha.

Brad looked ill and ashen.“No…he’s right.” He looked up at the man. “ Aren’t you?”

Pendergast nodded slowly. “The seven touched by The Divine for this task burned too brightly, their talents seemed to consume their essence until they burn out. It’s tragic. Others The Divine have touched, like myself, don’t exhibit this terminal characteristic, yet have been granted even more unusual talents.”

“Since you’re being so candid and buy into all of this insanity,” said Alisha, “then it’s safe to say that you admit to knowingly replacing vaccines with toxic chemicals and killing all of those innocent people.”

Pendergast nodded again. “I don’t expect you to believe me, but those lost lives — no, murders — weighs very heavily upon me. I have seen to it that all of their families will be well taken care of indefinitely, as will yours, Brad. The seven of you will be memorialized and remembered for your sacrifice.”

Brad gripped his head, his breath labored. His panicked eyes unfocused, flitting back and forth. “Oh my god. Oh my god I’m going to die.”

“Brad, calm down!” Alisha reached across the table and shook Brad. “If there’s something wrong with you we’ll get you to a doctor, but let’s get out of here.”

Brad looked up at Pendergast. “How do we stop The Nothingness?”

“Brad!” said Alisha. “You’re not serious.”

“The answer to that,” replied Pendergast, “lies within your creation.”

“But it’s not! I already asked it!”

“One piece is still missing.” Pendergast pulled a small, black leather book from his suit coat and his eyes filled with pride and awe. “It doesn’t look like much, I know. It would be easy enough to mistake it for an off-the-shelf journal given its impeccable condition and empty pages, but it’s over seven hundred years old and imbued with Primordium, the essence of creation itself. Once I’ve inscribed the algorithm you designed in these pages it will transform from a mere message into a living avatar of The Divine. You’ve seen what the message can do, imagine what we’ll be unlocking.”

“You’re insane,” said Alisha, pulling her gun from her purse and pointing it at the man as she slipped out of the booth and stood, “and you’re not taking any of this.”

Pendergast just raised his hands and smiled.

“Why do you have a gun?” asked Brad, now standing a step outside the booth, his bulging eyes bouncing between her and Pendergast.

“Because my ex-husband started showing up at the house drunk and belligerent.. Now grab your papers so we can get out of here.”

Brad hurriedly gathered his papers as she stared at Pendergast, her gun shaking slightly in her hand as those cold, blue, empty eyes stared bak at her above a calm smile. Let him smile, she had been recording their conversation with her smartphone since he showed up. She had his confession and would take it straight to the police and FBI as soon as they got out of here.

“Brad, would you join me?” asked Pendergast. “You haven’t got much time left. Why not make it count?”

Brad stopped for a moment, holding everything, then shuddered and shook his head. “Alisha’s right, it doesn’t matter what you intended, you killed all those people. We’ll figure out what the message means and what to about it without you.

Back up! Give him room!” she yelled at Pendergast. He nodded and took a step away, his eyes still locked with hers.

“I got everything,” said Brad, his voice shaky, “Let’s—“

Brad’s foot caught adjacent the edge of the booth and he pitched forward, the heavy box of papers he held pitching forward toward Pendergast. The man never moved, and when the box struck him he shattered like glass into countless colored fragments that seem to fall to the floor beneath in slow motion.


Alisha’s heart pounded so loud she couldn’t hear and time seemed to grind to a halt as she stared at the floor where Pendergast had stood. On his hands and knees, Brad quickly scooped up his papers.

“What the hell just happened?” Alisha heard herself ask.

Brand turned and looked up at her, but it was Pendergast’s face with his cold eyes and taunting smile that she saw. She screamed and turned the gun on him.

“Alisha, what’s wrong?” said Pendergast. “Why are you pointing that gun at me?”

Pendergast slowly rose to his feet, a rusted blade in his hanging hand, as a darkness descended upon the room that pressed against the lights in the room, fettering their illumination. Fear like she had never felt before gripped her heart and squeezed until she couldn’t breath or think. She held the gun out in front of her in a shuddering, white-knuckle grip. He stepped toward her. She fired.

The darkness receded, revealing Pendergast standing where he had before. Her ears ringing, she followed his gaze to the floor. Brad lay there prostrate with a hole in his chest.


Alisha dropped the gun and rushed to his side. Dropping to her knees she pressed both hands over the gaping wound as Brad began to convulse.

“Oh God, Brad, I’m so sorry! What happened!?”

Tears streamed down her face as a pool of blood formed under her hands and beneath her friend.

“Just hold on! I’ll call for help!”

“It’s not your fault.”

She turned at Pendergast’s calm voice. He held her gun, the barrel pointed at her.

“His gift would have consumed his mind and body, and he would have died soon after. Your bullet was a mercy.”

Hatred radiated through her tears as Alisha stared up at him. “You’re a murderer, nothing more.“

“Your daughter will be taken care of.”

Pendergast pulled the trigger.

Many days had come and gone as Pendergast tirelessly transcribed the algorithm from Brad’s computer onto the pages of his little black book. More than once he had ben certain he would run out of pages before completing the task, yet somehow there was always another page beyond the last.

Having scribed the final line, he lifted to book to inspect his work, but it slipped from his hands and crashed against the table with a sound like that of a book ten times its size. The pages began to turn themselves backwards as the words and figures began to bleed into each other until the pages turned black. Faster and faster the pages turned until they became a blur, an arch of darkness. The arch parted and fell until each side was one with the flat pages.

Pendergast stared into what looked portal into the void. Pin-pricks of light sprung to life in that void and fell away toward the center of the aperture. A tunnel, but to where?

The book slammed shut with a deafening crash and Pendergast recoiled. He starred down at the book in silence for some time, then slowly reached for it. Pulling it in front of him, he gently opening it and began reading.