The greatest bomb dropped on the world pretended to be its greatest asset.
But that was a thought too philosophical for Bob Montag, as he walked through the concrete and steel hallway and tapped his keycard to check in to his shift. The hallway was perfectly smooth, flat, undifferentiated here in the Facility (one of many). It was supposed to make it easier to detect a Spill, but, as time had worn on, it had made it harder. He was in the Camera Room tonight, and he was grateful to not have to endure the aching of his feet, plodding past the endless rooms and hallways that needed to be run between. He was even more grateful to not have to kick his feet up when he ran, fleeing away from the acid that might be behind him, but that he could never see. It was far away; they were supposed to be able to tell where it was. But it was anything. It was more invisible than ants. And they had done it: what could they really know? His eyes would have to be working harder tonight, dancing between the screens.
If there were cameras, the thought first had been, nearly twenty years ago: if there were cameras, would that ‘count’? Would the cameras be the eyes, and not need to be watched? But the moment their eyes were averted, the screens turned grey. The armies still had to be thrown at the thing, although now at least there was the convenience of sitting in one room to fight the battle on a hundred fronts; a hundred fronts, he thought, that could not be won.
He opened the steel door after another tap of the keycard. He laughed, exhausted, sarcastically, to himself as the door lock spun open like a great bank vault. They had made it with the illusion of security, he supposed, for their sake. The concrete and the steel didn’t make an inch of difference from plywood and dirt to what they were fighting. The door opened, and he could see the figure sloped on the chair in front of the screens. The top of his face was obscured by goggles, but he could tell — he thought — from the profile it was Fred Rogers. His eyes were not visible behind the tinted lenses from Bob’s angle, but his lips curled down and his wrinkles heightened around them. He was longing for sleep in a world of open eyes. Bob turned to the coffee machine in the corner before he tapped Fred on the shoulder to let him know he was there; he was a minute or two early for the shift change, and it would be a long night ahead without a cup of Joe. Besides, Fred could not turn around to say Hi, even really for an instant.
He pressed the button of the automated machine and for an instant flinched. It was an old thing, of complicated pipes and levers and vials. Of nooks and crannies — Bob could see the rusty ends in his mind now. Of uncleaned ends, of contaminated ends. Had the GUM-O gotten in? Even a drop? Was even one drop swirling around like a toxic oil spill in the coffee, now pouring out, pitch black, into his mug? It steamed and bubbled. Or into his lungs? He thought he saw a speck. He knew he saw it. No, no, impossible. And if it had — there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. Was there a thing, really, that anyone could do? Or was this night just as wasted as his life? As all of their lives, since GUM-O had arrived. You couldn’t think like that. He slapped himself in the face; his unshaven stubble scraped across his calloused hand like a million tiny daggers. Fred didn’t react, didn’t flinch. You couldn’t think like that, he told himself; this pandemic of a product had made everybody into obsessive paranoiacs, and the best anyone could do now was to try, not to give up. There was still a chance, but he didn’t really believe that. He was of the generation that had never known not to look around their shoulder. They were the paranoid children, because they had it beaten into them from the time they were toilet trained: to be vigilant, to be afraid. And it backfired on them, because that much fear of a thing makes it bigger than it is — or maybe as big as it is. But it makes you smaller. Maybe in a few more generations, all the kids would say to hell with it and give up. Wouldn’t that be all the worse, he thought, give up before it was over? What if there was a chance? All stare into the centre of a circle, holding hands, and let the thing well up like a tsunami behind them to take them — however long it took. Maybe just one second, with nobody looking. He smelled the coffee without tasting it, and tapped Fred on the shoulder.
He startled: Bob hoped from the deep focus and not from being asleep. He quickly passed off the goggles. Bob’s were out for repair, and he had to share for now. It was disgusting, but even without someone else’s eye fluid dripping into your own, this was easily the worst part of the job. He fitted the metal clamps over his eyelids; they locked into place, and as he lowered the visor the gears activated and turned a few ticks which began to spread them apart. He felt the moisturizer drip start on his eyes, pried open and trained ahead. He couldn’t afford to blink. Fred nodded at him; Bob took his seat and began his night. The door closed behind him.
He began to dot his eyes between the screens. There were so many of them; they all had to be on at once. All he could do was try to spend a fraction of a second darting around between each one. It was dull work. It was hard to stay awake, impossible, even. Even though his eyes were trained open, he felt that sometimes he was going into a sort of sleep, and like he couldn’t really tell what was going on. Occasionally command-base would identify a new area of risk, and beam this one in on another screen. Then one would cackle off, only to cackle back on as soon as possible, with a view nearly just the same. This was almost more dull, since it brought up and then squashed anticipation within you.
One such screen started to cackle. The static whirlwind bled in to a blizzard, and whirred out with the wind to show not the concrete box, or inside of a pipe, or landfill, or abandoned playground with a sun setting in the distance which he was used to, but bright animated colours. Purposeful animations filling the screen. The audio came in a moment later.
“What do you want? What do you want? What if you could have anything? What if you could have it all?”
(A harp strummed and a harshly animated cartoon genie appeared, to continue the sales pitch.)
“Now you can have something even better with GUM-O, the all-brand all-cleaner multi-thing.”
“What can it do?” A chorus of background singers chimed.
“Anything!” The genie exclaimed, “Far more than three wishes!”
He held up a small cardboard box, decorated in red wavy lines and emblazoned with random symbols. A telephone, a watermelon… GUM-O was scrawled across it in harsh geometric letters.
“Simply pour out your GUM-O powder, rub it on your hands. You can make a mould out of it, but don’t worry, you don’t have to be a DaVinci for this to work. Now, look at it. Tell GUM-O your desire, but you don’t even have to speak it! GUM-O can read it directly from your mind! And… presto!”
Views of the powdery flour clay transmuting into gold, into broccoli, into a radio set cut between themselves on the film.
“That’s the magic of GUM-O! The psychic picker-upper; anything YOU desire!”
An animated pin-up woman popped into the corner of the screen:
“But what if my wants are a whole lot… bigger than that?”
“Well that’s why our magic geniuses have made GUM-O plus!” (A new box appeared on screen).
“Simply pour out the psychic powder, and mix with water. How much? Any amount you desire: that’s how much GUM-O you’ll have! The GUM-O soaks it up to produce more of itself! Now you have as much GUM-O as water to shape to your heart’s content. And just one package of GUM-O Plus is all you ever need. If you never finish, you’ll never run out! Pull off an unused piece of GUM-O Plus, drop it into some more water and it replicates again. GUM-O Plus, all your wants and needs plus all your needs and wants: The last product you’ll ever need! From Procter Prospects.”
The only reason he left the thing rumble for so long was curiosity. The ad must have bounced in by accident to the transmission, as command-base switched the channels. The ads were gleefully beamed out to all the off-world colonies, and now one must have hit a satellite like a ping pong ball and traversed back to him, after decades of waiting in space. But now, at the smiling pin-up family, all too perfect — painted and animated, in fact, rather than filmed — he nearly threw up. He brought the coffee cup close to his mouth and cracked-open eyes to catch it, if it should come. This is how it had started, he thought, with everyone so sure and so happy. And it had seemed great at the start. He hadn’t been alive, but he knew it well. Now, these were the only stories that mattered, the only ones anyone ever told to him when he was a boy. The problems of the world were solved: not just the problem-needs but all of it. All the poor kids had food in their bellies. All the sad women had a new house and a new handbag. Even a new husband. But the inventors at the company hadn’t been great physicists — great philosophers. Maybe, it was magicians: nobody really knew how a thing like that could work. But something about the consciousness nature of it, the imprinting of one’s own thoughts, meant that when a human stare wasn’t focused on it and expecting something else to be there, the GUM-O would spread itself anyway it could. It seeped into the water in everything, and soon seeped into everything itself.
This was only discovered, of course, with the second discovery. The one that came far too late — decades too late: that it could only change so much. GUM-O had a limited cycle before the thing seemed to decompose. It wasn’t noticeable at first. Look away and your house on its backside may have been a grey blob, but look back and it propped itself back up. It must have been happening all that time, but nobody could ever see. That was why it spread so quickly. Soon every house, every foodstuff, every business was secretly made of GUM-O. After ten years, twenty, it didn’t spring back quite so springy. Houses drooped, window sills dragged. Food had a rubbery feel to it. And before anyone knew it, it wouldn’t spring back from this grey GUM-O ooze at all. You looked away from your meal, looked back and it was grey puke. You looked away from your house and all that was left was a puddle. Anything that wasn’t looked at was being consumed by this thick silly-putty. The grass was quicksand. Concrete bunkers bled into slow moving bouncy castles. The whole universe was being eaten in a slow process of GUM-O-fication. And it could, already, be anywhere. It could be anything. Anything that was a bit, off.
Bob couldn’t bare to look at the gleeful advertisement anymore. But he couldn’t turn it off. The screens were wired — had to be — to always be on, always transmitting something to always watchful eyes. He couldn’t close those either. He had to simply look away. He shuffled in his chair to view the other screens. He ratcheted his head around like an owl, the whole surface of his eyeballs forcibly peering out. The static noise, the gleeful ad-men voices and chorus singers, soon faded behind him. The true transmission must have tuned in, and kicked this out of the line. He looked back.
But where the monitor should have been was only a grey putty. Dear God, he thought to his own head, since there was no one else to hear him, it’s in the room. But he did not feel panic so much as a relief. He scraped the burning metal clamps off of his eyes when he removed the goggles. For an instant, when he finally removed the goggles for the last time, he felt a cool sort of a breeze on his vision. He closed his eyes. He was very tired.