Unbalanced parentheses

The scourge, we are told, started off when an artificial intelligence designed to study the genomics of drug resistant retroviruses created a simulation. An electronic algorithm that, when applied to simulated tissue, would replicate the way these pathogens took over the immune systems of living organisms. The scientists at the National Institute of Pathology figured they could then simulate drugs to see if they worked. The initial results were encouraging, and it was decided that the electronic bugs would be manufactured for testing. When they opened the fabricator, instead of a few micrograms of drug resistant retrovirus, they found that the chamber was filled with a crystalline white powder..

“No, that’s not a good opener”, the director said. “We need something more dramatic – something that starts with explosions, cars being thrown around, that kind of stuff”

When you are a scriptwriter, you come across a lot of morons. I couldn’t do anything about it, though.. he was American, and true to his upbringing, lacked even a trace of subtlety.

“I’ll try reworking this draft. How about we meet next week?”

“Sure. Lets meet next week. Listen, do you want to go to this flying human contest thing? I have free tickets.”

I had no other plans for the evening, and so i agreed.

The contestants had been lined up in a giant enclosed arena the size of a football field with a wooden flooring resembling a basketball court. Here and there were odd flying machines designed to make humans fly under their own power. A mutant with bird like wings flapped his wings in a corner. Another guy had a propeller like contraption in his hat. Other mechanisms were evidently attempting to use the operator’s digestive gases as fuels. What struck me, however, was a guy in a white coat, with no apparent mechanism with which to fly, strolling around, whistling to himself. It was clear he fancied himself the winner.

When it started, it was clear to me that the term “flying” could barely be applied to any of these purveyors of glorified hops. The contest quickly grew monotonous. As the announcers droned on about flight specs and mechanism designs, i dozed off. I woke up to wild cheering. The announcer shouted, “Behold! the multicolored flying man”. I was rapt in attention.

The flying man stood up and proceeded to remove his white lab coat. Standing at the start line, he rubbed something that looked like a white powder onto his neck and his gums. It looked suspiciously like some kind of drug. Then he started running, each step growing into larger and larger bounds. The crowd cheered. As he leapt high into the air, I knew that this was the real deal. The cheering turned into a roar as the man took to the air and circled the glowing screen in the middle of the arena, otherwise used to display magnified images of the contestants. Green patterns appeared on the skin of his back, ever changing, ever whirling, kaledioscopic, changing to blue and purple, as the announcer yelled “Not only does it make you fly, it also has a cosmetic effect!!!” I barely stifled the scream that arose from the back of my throat. It was time to run.

“That’s a pretty weird way to start it, isn’t it?,” drawled the director, munching on some peanuts, “I can see that you are going for the whole story-in-a-story angle. But our audience is just not going to be able to appreciate it, you know. It might be too high-brow for them””

This was frustrating. Here I was, trying to come up with a storyline that would redefine movies in this genre. And all this guy wanted was exploding cars.

On the way out, I stopped by the coffee machine to have a drink of water. As I turned around, I noticed a figure perched in the window at the end of the hallway. He was startled to see me and jumped off. Surprised, I ran up to the window and looked out. From between the leaves of the trees lining the street, I saw the man standing on the street. He waved to me and walked on by.

On the window sill, I noticed a dusting of fine white crystals that looked like salt. I pressed my fingertips to it, and noticed that a few of them clung on. Instinctively, I rubbed them into the crook of my neck. An amazing sensation overpowered me as I jumped out of the window and sailed onto a ledge on the building across the street. Every thing took a tinge of… red. I felt an intense hunger.

The previous evening, I had lay hiding in a ditch by the side of the road as a car passed by. The thing I feared was in the hedges across the highway, a purple gelatinous mass with an insatiable hunger. As the car passed by, the thing emerged onto the highway and took the form of a giant purple octopus, arms flailing about, beak exposed, gnashing away. One of its tentacles grabbed the car and ground it to a halt. The other broke the window open on the drivers side, and wrenched me from the wheel. I considered trying to escape, but the urge to discover what it felt like inside the behemoth overtook me, and I submitted. After all, it would make for good special effects in my film. Tentacle coiled around me, I was whisked to the beak. I felt my body being torn to pieces. And then there was.. silence. Utter darkness.

I knew I was dreaming, of course. But dreams are interesting as long as they do not involve the prospect of being eaten up by monsters. This one had become too morbid. It had gone out of hand. I desperately needed to wake up. Looking around my room, I noticed the metallic door with the flashing exit sign, and I decided to make my way out. I pulled on the handle and it gave. The door opened onto another, slightly smaller door of the same metallic texture – a smaller version of the first that just fitted inside its frame. The second door opened on to a third, smaller, door.. That’s when I knew I was trapped.

I decided to make my way back to the elevator. As I flew back to my window, chaos had broken loose. The air was full of vampire toothed flyers creating mayhem – the white powder had taken them over. I ran to the elevator and took it down to the lobby. The lobby looked as neat as ever – crystal chandeliers reflecting off the marble floors. I waved to the security guards standing behind their table to the right and stepped out into a gorgeous sunny New York day.

The polyps came out of nowhere – seemingly blossoming from tiny cracks in the pavement. The looked like purple zucchini flowers, but the speed at which they grew astonished me. Turning left and right, opening their yawning maws and devouring everything they could eat – passerbys, cars, the hot dog stands at the corner, vendors included. Something told me that just a few minutes ago, they had been people, now assimilated into this purple agglutination that could make its way underground, much as water could.

Fearing for life, I turned around into the lobby. And things changed. The precise thought that ran through my mind was that a phase shift had occured. Or was it deja vu?

The glass walls of the lobby had been shattered to pieces. The power was off, and the place was deserted. It was winter. Turning back onto the street, I realized that the white powder covering everything, the pavement, the abandoned cars.. was not snow. It was a far more pernicious living dust – capable of turning humans to its will, initially giving them the ability to fly, and then devouring them alive. One by one, the dust consumed the cars, and turned them into more of itself. This was apocalypse. The final end of humanity by a scourge that men themselves had created.

“We are getting somewhere with this now,” the director said. “I like the whole end-of-the-world angle. One man fighting the odds against an overpowering foe. But let us make this a “regional” thing. You know, its not really the whole world that is in peril, it is just your city.”

The whole thing was too formulaic – a strange concoction of “Andromeda Strain” and ‘Godzilla”. But I had to give the guy what he wanted. Besides, I was taking the weekend off, and I did not want him bothering me.

It had grown dark now, and my headlights lit up the road ahead of me. The director was snoring in his seat as I drove on, a sense of urgency filling me up. Behind me, the lights of the city shone in the distance. The camp I was headed to was still some way off. Thats when I realized that a gelatinous mass was rolling through the fields to my right. Distracted as I was by this discovery, I did not see the incoming curve, and the car ran off the road into a clump of trees by the left and buried itself nose deep into a bank of loose earth. I banged my head on the wheel, but was otherwise unhurt. I knew the thing would sense us. The time had come to make my way through the woods and fields to the camp.

A half hour later, I crouched by a stream flowing through a ditch between two banks of trees. I heard a rustling off to my right, and I realized that she had escaped the city too. It was all good, and together we would make our way to the camp.

The camp lay across as floodlit field. Some tents, and a big warehouse resembling an aircraft hangar. Soldiers in Jeeps patrolled the field. We ran across, and were let into the warehouse. There were already hundreds here, but it was otherwise empty. The place had space and held food for thousands – good quality food, not the kind of glop that soldiers and college students have to eat. The kitchen itself was a marvel of culinary mass production. But more on that some other time. Right now, I was just curious to see how they would defeat the scourge.

An alarm sounded as the doors began to close, and simultaneously hundreds more emerged from the woods that lay beyond the field surrounding the camp – each eager and desperate to make their way into the stronghold before the extermination started. Someone said it was going to be some kind of poison gas, others thought it would be by burning everything that lay outside. Still others claimed that because of the electronic nature of the dust, they would fry it with an E.M.P.

The doors were shut even as people were streaming in. Some were cut off outside and tried to make their way in through the windows. Soon, the window shutters were also being lowered. The shutter lowest me had not closed fully – a tiny crack remained at the top. When they made the announcement that the extermination was commencing, I wondered if I should point it out to them. After all, if whatever they were doing outside managed to make its way in, we would be toast and the whole exercise would be rendered fruitless.

I need not have bothered. Someone smashed a rock in through the windows, and more people began to make their way in. However they were going to do it, it didn’t matter any more – the white dust was spreading through the fields, crawling and make its way towards our camp in the middle.

The city lay on the horizon, and a helicopter appeared over it. A bright beam of light shown out from the bottom of the helicopter – some kind of chemical laser, I thought. As it touched down on buildings in the city, they burst into flames. But the whole effort seemed pointless – the dust would soon overpower us, and in any case, even if they did reach us, they would surely just incinerate us.

The helicopter began flying towards us. In three or four quick flashes the beam under it shone out into the clouds above. At each touch of the beam, the clouds glowed and grew larger. The heat grew oppressive as the helicopter flew over us and disappeared. Meanwhile, the dust had reached the door of the warehouse and was eating through it.

And then it rained. Rainwater dissolved the dust and it was all over. Relief shone through on the faces of everyone I looked at. People were cheering and hugging. I felt disconnected from it all.

The alarm sounded and the flashing exit sign switched off. The lights in the theatre came back on. The ones who had turned up for the first screening applauded. The director congratulated me on a job well done.

The film went on to become a blockbuster. And as I awakened, I wondered why I, the only one of the survivors who had ever flown, had not been turned to salt.


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