Doctor James Finny felt the Dark Cipher working within him as he loaded rounds into a snub-nosed revolver. He felt no fear of it, unlike the others. Truth be known, he was actually quite thrilled at the prospect of becoming something other than human. Far as he was concerned, the human species had outworn its welcome long ago, anyway. The religious nuts forming a mob outside his office, of course, disagreed.
He watched them through narrow slits between venetian blinds as he chambered another bullet. They’d been squawking about an apocalypse for months. It shouldn’t have surprised him. He’d been Deer, Arkansas’ doctor for twelve years, long enough to know that “apocalypse” was the Baptist church’s go-to assumption for damn near everything.
War in some remote corner of the world? Apocalypse. Little Jenny Stayer boinks the captain of the wrestling team? Apocalypse. Sour milk? Yep…apocalypse. So, when code hidden in the junk DNA of millions of people around the world suddenly became activated, he should have known that their first guess would be apocalypse.
Somehow, he’d been foolish enough to hope that this one time they’d listen to science.
Finny slammed the cylinder shut, tucked the gun into the back waistband of his khaki pants, and walked to the front door. As he passed a full length mirror next to a weight scale and height chart, he remembered that he’d better stop to see if any mutations had begun to show physically.
For the most part, he was still the same tall, lean man with a hawkish nose and full head of silver hair, but his eyes had changed, the pupils become noticeably darker. Blackening eyes were commonly known as the first indication that the Dark Cipher was active in someone. He couldn’t let the fanatics outside see that, now could he? He was liable to be drawn and quartered if he did.
Finny got his nurse’s sunglasses from the reception desk and put them on. They were huge, white-rimmed things that made him look like a gigantic fly. Oh well. It was the best he could manage at the moment.
He opened the office door and stepped into the summer swelter. Hordes of insects hummed like bug zappers in the air. Twenty feet away, the mob gathered in the parking lot fell eerily silent, all at once, as though sharing a hive mind. They numbered maybe fifty, looking to be every congregant of Deer Baptist Church.
Finny patted the revolver at his back to reassure himself it was still there, feeling more unnerved than he cared to admit. He spoke loud enough for everyone in the parking lot to hear.
“The State of Arkansas has entrusted me to administer a test for Dark Cipher genetics. This is completely voluntary, and no more invasive than a cotton swab in your mouth.” For effect, he pulled out the swab he’d pocketed for exactly this moment and held it up in the air.
A man broke out from the crowd and walked towards him. It was the minister Ira Hayes, of course — that paragon of stupidity. The man had on his customary white collared shirt tucked into his neatly pressed blue jeans. It was a fashion choice that always drove Finny nuts. What kind of man wears collared shirts tucked into pressed blue jeans? It was absolutely absurd.
“Doctor Finny,” Ira said, “we need to talk.”
“This isn’t the time for religious debate.” The word ‘debate’ congealed in his mouth. To call any conversation with Ira a “debate” was an insult to the very concept of intellectual discussion.
“No debate here, doc. But before we go any further, I need you to hand over that gun.”
Finny was startled. He’d been alone in the office. How could they know he was armed? “Have you been spying on me?”
“In a manner of speaking, I suppose.” Ira nodded slowly. “I suppose it would be dishonest to say otherwise.”
“How dare you?”
Blood swelled in Finny’s eyes. He was pissed at the thought that he was being watched, and he wanted to belt Ira Hayes in the mouth, but he restrained his fist and checked his anger. Acting on it would set him down a road that was not only futile, but potentially dangerous. He had a duty as Deer’s doctor to make the test available, but the most important thing was surviving whatever religious furor these people had worked themselves into.
“There’s no need for trouble,” Finny said. “Scientists already figured out what the Cipher is. It’s not an apocalypse, Ira. It’s not Satan or Jesus. It’s just code hidden in junk DNA of thousands, maybe millions, of people. Some theorize it was activated by extraterrestrial intelligence. Others think it’s just some kind of evolutionary fluke. Either way, it’s not an apocalypse.”
Ira’s face didn’t register that he’d even heard Finny. The man simply held out his hand, palm up. “We need you to hand over that gun.”
The word “we” reminded Finny of the others. He looked over Ira’s head and saw that the whole mob had advanced a couple steps. They were now watching him from the grass, closer by a few feet. The fact that they’d moved forward so discretely was unnerving.
Finny didn’t realize he’d started backing up until he bumped into the door. “What the hell are you people up to?”
Fear seized Finny. Absolute panic. It must be the Dark Cipher, he realized, amplifying his senses. Something bad was imminent. He knew it without having to ask any more questions.
Finny drew his gun. The crowd didn’t react. Their eyes just settled on the weapon, silently, passively. They didn’t even flinch.
“Stay away from me you ignorant bastards.”
Finny opened the door behind him without turning around, never taking his eyes off the crowd. As soon as he backed into the cool shade of the office, the crowd that started slowly advancing again. Finny bolted the door shut, ran to the rear of the building, and sprinted out the backdoor.
At the top of a grassy slope leading down into the woods, his toes got caught up in a mole hill and he tumbled forward, egg-rolling all the way to the bottom of the rise. He lost his sunglasses in the process, though thankfully managing to hold onto the gun without squeezing off a round.
He started to head back for the glasses, but then Ira crested the hill with his people in tow.
“Stop, Doc. You’re only going to hurt yourself.”
Finny fired a shot into the air. The Baptists halted, but didn’t flee. They just kept watching him.
Finny fled across the lawn and crashed into the woods. Ira called something out to him, but blind terror made all sounds run together into a meaningless drone.
Inside the wood line, kudzu vines and blackberry bushes caught him up like bug in a spider web. He forced his way through, tearing clothes and skin in the process.
The Baptists flowed into the woods behind him, moving deliberately through the undergrowth.
Without his sunglasses, Finny felt like a mouse trapped in the open in owl country. If the Baptists saw his blackening eyes, he was good as dead. That was assuming, of course, that he wasn’t already dead. Fear of the Cipher and its imagined apocalypse made the faithful dangerous. They’d tear him limb from limb and display his head on the church pulpit. The terror drove him on, through the underbrush and into the woods.
He followed a deer trail for a while before breaking off into the rougher terrain to make pursuit more difficult. He didn’t have enough bullets to shoot them all. The thought of shooting even one sickened him, anyway. He’d never even been in a fist fight.
He couldn’t call the cops, either. They were all part of the Baptist congregation and were probably among the mob out there hunting him, anyway. He didn’t have any Deer friends to call on. He’d always kept a distance from the people.
He told himself it was the professional thing to do, as a doctor, but the truth was that he just never much cared for the company of those hillbillies, anyway. He’d only even taken the job to give medical care to the needy, and as much as he cared for them in an abstract, philosophical sense, he didn’t actually like them personally.
He was scrambling up a steep creek bank when he remembered something. The Cipher’s transformational process took between twenty-four and forty-eight hours. Though the government was keeping quiet on most details, rumor was that those who fully transformed ended up with exponentially enhanced intelligence, even mental “powers” akin to telepathy. Time, then, was on his side. He only needed to survive until the process completed.
Something white flashed through the trees ahead. It passed so quickly he wasn’t sure it was actually there, but then it appeared again — the vague shape of a house broken up by branches and leaves.
Finny crept towards the construction. His intention was to scope it out from afar before approaching, but as he picked his way through the trees he was startled by the sound of branches breaking and voices calling out his name. Terror jolted him like an electric spark in the ass. He bolted towards the building he’d seen beyond the woods.
Only after breaking from the woods onto a large, neatly kept lawn did he realize he was running straight towards Deer Baptist Church.
He froze for a moment, wheeled about looking for an escape route. Baptists spilled out of the woods all around him, their clothes and hair still strangely kempt despite the long chase. Had he been herded there like a mastodon driven off a cliff by prehistoric man? Or was it just terrible, dumb luck?
Finny ran for the church. The front door was unlocked. He bolted inside it and shut it.
Sunlight beamed through six tall windows, shining over the pews of the darkened church interior.
Footsteps knocked on the porch outside. He backed into the church, gun extended before him. He was in the middle of the pews when the sound of a door shutting startled him.
He spun around to see Big Hank Stayer in all his two hundred pounds of muscle and flannel emerging from the curtain behind the pulpit.
“We’re here to save you,” Hank said.
Finny fired. It was pure instinct. Panic. It took him a second after the shot to even realize what he’d done. By that time Hank was folded at the waist, arms wrapped over his stomach as blood gushed out and ran onto the floor. The big man collapsed face first onto the floor.
Finny vomited on himself. He was only vaguely aware of this fact. His own body suddenly seemed a hundred miles away.
Hank rolled onto his back. He wasn’t twitching or screaming, but just looking up into the rafters with a peculiarly calm expression. Then his face started to flicker in and out of place like a bad light bulb. Finny didn’t have to be a medical doctor to know that that wasn’t a normal part of the dying process.
Hank’s face finally flicked off and stayed that way. What was left in its place was a long, insectian head with enormous black eyes and two, prominent yellow nodes on its forehead.
“You should have given us the gun, Doc,” Ira’s voice said. “Now look what’s happened.”
Finny spun around to see Ira Hayes and his congregation inside the church.
The gun shook wildly in the doctor’s hands.
“What’s happening here, Ira?”
“We wanted to make sure you didn’t have the gun before we explained. We should have gotten to you before you got that thing, but we were all going through some heavy mutations.”
“What?” It was the only word Finny could manage.
Each member of the congregation touched their right hands to their left simultaneously, as though part of a rehearsed act. Their faces flickered out. What was left behind were alien faces identical to Hank’s.
“I don’t understand,” Finny said. It was a lie. He did understand. He just didn’t want to.
Two congregants, Bonnie Hanks and Shelley Faruza, walked past Finny and started tending to Hank Stayer.
“Doc,” Ira’s voice spoke in Finny’s head, though the creature’s mouth didn’t move. “As soon as the Dark Cipher started in us, we could hear what people were thinking. Other people including you. We knew how badly you wanted to be like us. You want it even worse than you’re consciously aware of. We were afraid of what you’d do after you found out the truth. We were afraid you might hurt yourself.”
“But I’m like you, Ira.” Finny pointed to his eyes and laughed. It sounded fake and pathetic, even to himself.
“The eyes were in your head, Doc. They haven’t changed. The Cipher has completed its process in everyone who is going to change, and now it’s time for us to leave.”
“This is impossible. I was the only person in this town with a working brain. You’re telling me you’ve all been selected, and I wasn’t?”
“Selected?” Ira cocked his insect head to side. “Is that how you think this works? Who, exactly, do you think does this selecting?”
The question frustrated Finny. He hadn’t seriously considered it. He hadn’t really cared. He just wanted to be one of the chosen ones.
“There’s nothing selective about any of this, Doc. It’s completely random. Some of us were born with it and some weren’t. Way back in the beginning of humanity, visitors from another solar system planted some code in a few of our early ancestors. Just to kind of see what would happen.”
“You’re telling me there’s no common correlative factors? Then how did everyone in this congregation have it, and not me?”
“In any random system, there will be strange occurrences and weird anomalies. We’re one of them.”
“Then what’s the purpose of the Cipher?”
“There is no purpose. Some visitors just thought it would be an interesting experiment. That’s all. Everybody needs something to do with their time, right?”
Finny looked to the gun. He wasn’t even aware of what he was about to do until he did it. As though guided by its own power, the weapon raised and pressed against his temple.
“Doc,” Ira shouted telepathically.
Finny’s eyes went to Ira. Silent moments passed.
“You passed the test,” Ira said.
Finny lowered the gun. “The test?”
“Yes,” Ira said. “We had to see how badly you desired the transformation. You’ve proven that.” Ira reached out and gently pulled the gun from Finny’s hand. “We can’t fulfill our mission without you, Doc. We’re only the advance party, but we’ll come back. Until then, you have a very important mission here.”
Finny felt relief and hope. A smile spread across his face and tears started to well in his eyes. Ira had been right. Finny hadn’t even understood how badly he needed to be one of the chosen. “What do you need me to do?”
“We’ll send a message to you, when the time is right. Until then, we need you to be kind and loving to everyone around you. The next stage in evolution is moral as much as intellectual. Humanity has to become kinder before it can advance beyond the stars.”
“I can do that.” Finny nodded like an eager pet.
Ira rested one hand gently on his shoulder. “That includes yourself, Doctor Finny. You must also be kind to yourself.”
“Of course,” Finny said, even though the idea hadn’t previously occurred to him.
“We knew there was a reason you’d been chosen.”
The word “chosen” sent goosebumps of satisfaction up Finny’s arms. He practically shivered with it.
“It’s time for us to go.”
Ira started to lead Finny towards the door. The doctor remembered Hank and turned back to check on him.
Hank was sitting up with Bonnie and Shelley at either side, his stomach already scabbed over and healing.
“Sorry about that, Hank,” Finny said.
“No sweat,” said Hank. “Nanobots are fixing it up right quick.”
Ira led Finny into the yard and the across the grass until they were about fifty yards away from the church. He rested one hand warmly on Finny’s shoulder. “Keep your distance from the church, Doc. You’ll get vaporized otherwise.”
Finny nodded, and Ira walked back to the church. “I’ll do what you said,” Finny said. “And I’ll keep my eyes peeled for when you return for me.”
Ira smiled and waved. “You bet, Doc. Could be a while.”
Finny smiled “Well not too long a while, I hope.”
Ira smiled back, but it looked a little sad. He waved again and walked inside the church.
A moment later, Finny’s hair stood on end and the air sizzled around him with static electricity. A field of blue energy crackled into existence around the church. The field was pyramidal, veined with lightning.
The ground shuddered slightly and the church, encased within its energy field, lifted up and shot into the sky. Less than a second later, it was gone from sight.
Finny watched the sky for a long time after that. Dusk fell. The Arkansas woods croaked with life. For the first time in his life, it occurred to him how beautiful it sounded, and how lucky he was to have been born at all.
From their distance, the Earth looked the size of a marble. Ira Hayes watched it recede from his seat in the church’s bell tower. A moment later, it was gone completely, swallowed up by black space.
Hank sat beside him, watching too. Both were excited to see the new world to which they were going, but both also felt a tinge of sadness that they’d never see home again.
“It was a good thing you did,” Hank communicated telepathically to Ira. “Lying to Doctor Finny about him being chosen.”
Ira nodded. It was a meaningless gesture, of course, as every nuance of his thinking was transmitted telepathically to Hank, anyway. But some old habits die hard. “Everybody needs hope,” he said. “It would have been cruel to leave him without it.”
Hank nodded. “Well, what do we do now?”
“A couple years up the way we’re supposed to pass a moon with some primitive life on it. I figured by that time we’ll be ready for the break. We could stop and do some genetics.”
“Yea, after a couple years we’ll probably be feeling some cabin fever.”
Ira thought a moment. A grin tickled the corners of his mouth. “Church fever, you mean.”
Hank laughed out loud. In his new form it came out high and wheezing and strange.