Bovine spongiform encephalopathy. That’s what it was. Travis lifted the package of meat to his nose and sniffed, though all he got was the scent of cool plastic. He lowered it again and ignored the woman who passed him, a short blonde with her kid in the cart. He raised a finger and pointed at Travis, and then giggled. Travis felt his cheeks turn pink, and he turned away.
He waited until he was sure the woman and her spawn were occupied elsewhere, and peered down at the meat.
I don’t like those brown spots. They look like disease.
Another voice answered the first. So, why are you still holding it?
He mentally shrugged and tossed the meat back into the display case. He pulled a small bottle of sanitizer from his pocket and squirted some into his hands, then scrubbed them together, counting to twelve. When he was done, he slipped the bottle back into his pants and pulled out a small packet of aspirin. He tore it open and chewed two, the bitter taste feeling like a cleansing acid to his tongue. He swallowed and made his way toward the dry aisles.
Couldn’t go wrong with canned food. Hermetically sealed, vacuum packed, untouched by human hands.
Except, what if a rat fell in? Or someone lost a finger? What if the meat they used wasn’t sanitized?
His head started to throb. The fluorescents overhead were too bright, and he imagined he could hear them buzzing like nests of hornets above him. He rubbed his eyes and shook his head to clear it. After another minute of staring at an array of cans with labels printed with names like Potted Meat Product, SPAM, and Vienna Sausages, he shook his head once more and decided he would have vegetables for dinner.
He picked out a nice ear of corn and a squash, and for dessert, a kiwi. He didn’t like the hair on them, but he loved the flavor, so he made concessions. At the front of the store, he chose the self-checkout. It was a Devil’s choice, really. More people touched the screens (which is why he used his touchscreen gloves), but no one was handling his food.
The woman from the meat aisle was in front of him, her kid dangling his feet from the leg holes in the cart. He scrunched his face up at Travis and stuck his tongue out, and made a raspberry. That wasn’t the sound that came out, though. Instead, it was a deep buzzing, like that of a bee close to your ear. Travis started, and dropped his vegetables. He stepped away, his heart pounding, and headed for the front door. The register attendant tried to catch his attention.
“Sir – you dropped these.”
He started after Travis with a handful of vegetables like a vengeful farmer. Travis looked over his shoulder at the approaching teenager, and thought he saw the boy’s eyes flash black in the bright lights. He lowered his head and picked up his pace.
“Sir, sir, si-bzzzzzzzzz.”
The sound drew a small squeak of terror from Travis, and he broke into a run, barely giving the sliding doors the chance to open before he burst into the parking lot. He sprinted to his car and ripped the door open. Once in, he jammed the key in the ignition, and as soon as the engine roared to life, tore out of the lot like all the hounds of Hell were on his ass.
The cashier stood at the sliding doors for a moment, watching the sedan roar away. He looked down at the vegetables and cursed. He was going to have to put these back on the shelves now. He trudged back inside.
The doorman greeted Travis with his usual enthusiasm.
“Hello, Mr. Phobos. Good day?”
Travis glanced up and saw nictating membranes – the third eyelid – flash over the man’s eyes. The doorman, Joe, coughed, and Travis heard a distinct buzz. He turned to the side and slipped through the door without a word, careful to keep himself from the man’s gloved hand. He walked hurriedly down the hall to the elevators, and didn’t let out the breath he’d been holding until the doors opened on his suite.
The suite was white and brass. He had read somewhere brass was one of those metals that had natural antimicrobial properties – given a few hours, it would sterilize itself. The white was so he could see any dirt that might pop up and nip it in the bud. He walked to the sink and washed his hands, his mind free-floating.
One two three four, wash them some more. There’s more of them today than yesterday, and more than the day before that. It’s spreading, and someone’s got to do something.
He shut the water off, steam rising from the tap, and sanitized his hands. Then he made a call. A lifetime of fastidiousness had made him very precise and exacting – it was why he was so good with numbers – it had also made him quite wealthy. Being wealthy had its perks – you knew who to call when you needed unsavory things done, no matter how dirty it might get you.
The phone rang twice, and a voice, thick with sleep, picked up.
“Harry. I need a favor.”
On the other end of the line, Harry’s ears perked up. Favors were always lucrative when it came to Mr. Phobos.
The van was idling in an alley that looked like it hadn’t seen a broom or a good rain in twenty years. Travis pulled his coat and his gloves on tighter, and adjusted his surgical mask. The little man he was facing was twitchy, a quality that endeared him to Travis.
Man like that knows what’s out there. Knows the value of vigilance.
The little man, Carlos, opened the van’s doors and swept an arm at the contents.
“At your service, Mr. Phobos.”
The interior of the van was lined with weapons of all shapes and sizes – pistols and rifles and knives and Travis even thought he saw a rocket launcher in the back. He leaned in and pointed out a heavy-looking automatic. Carlos picked it out of its lined bed, with a clip and several bullets. After a moment, he also grabbed a holster, an under-the-shoulder thing made of several straps and leather.
Travis took them, and tried on the holster, then slipped the clip into the pistol and racked a round. The sound was satisfying, clean. Carlos watched him.
Travis looked at him. He noticed the man’s sweatshirt had pulled up around his forearms, exposing skin that was mottled and hard with chitinous scales.
“What?” He asked Carlos.
“Bzzzz. Bzzz. Bzzzzzzz bzzzzzzzz.”
Travis shot the man in the face. The sound ricocheted around the alley, then died away in a distant echo. He looked at the corpse, green blood oozing from its ruined head.
There, that’s it. Getting worse. Need to cleanse them all.
He walked out of the alley, leaving the van and the bug behind.
The grocery store was bright. Too bright, like the things that lived there needed the light, needed the noise, the incessant buzzing from overhead to make them feel at home. He watched shoppers trudge by, most unaware of the horror they stood in. One of the stockboys walked by, his corduroys making whispering sounds between his legs, and Travis imagined the insects here liked that. He sanitized his hands, and walked to the canned meat aisle.
He inspected the cans for the second time that week. They read with new names – Chopped Meal Worm Bits, Nectar, Exoskeleton Builder, and Caterpillar Meal. He saw the first of the intruders walking down the aisle, a fat woman with antennae poking from her bouffant. He waited until she got closer, and pulled the pistol.
She barely had time to register before the weapon roared and spread her brains like a Jackson Pollack over the Kraft products. Her body fell to the ground and made a sound like a side of beef hitting concrete. Someone screamed, and suddenly, the store was chaos. Buzzing came from overhead, the voices of the Overlords. He shot at the speakers, but that only seemed to anger them.
The stockboy he had seen earlier stepped into the aisle, confusion on his face. He held that expression for a minute, his mandibles working in terror just before a bullet removed that half of his skull. Green blood flew and decorated the tiles and he collapsed.
More of them came, with their carapaces and screaming buzzsaw language. Travis destroyed each and every one, laying waste to their nest. He was triumphant, his was a glorious battle. He turned and saw a new threat, a great mantis holding some sort of rod. The rod roared, and Travis’ arm dissolved into a red agony. He looked down and panicked.
I’ve been poisoned.
He dropped his weapon and tried to reach his sanitizer. He needed to cleanse the wound. Another mantis, bigger than the first, appeared at the end of the aisle, a rod in its hand as well. The weapon roared, and Travis dove for his weapon. He managed to grab it just as another buzz from the opposite end of the aisle started. He glanced over his shoulder, in time to see more of the warriors emerging from the greeting cards. He raised his pistol.
Filthy bugs! Filthy bug-
The bullet that exploded his brain ended the thought prematurely.
Officer Franklin, only a week from a vacation – somewhere nice, like Cozumel – lowered his pistol. He looked at Roberts, his Sergeant, then the carnage in the aisle. Bodies lay strewn about like a child had a tantrum with his toys. He turned back to Roberts.
“Bzzz. Bzzz. Bzzzz.”