The day started with Va junking a two hundred thousand dollar scanning electron microscope. It got worse from there.
She didn't really want to try the electron microscope, but they were running out of ways to analyze the new street drug that had been blowing up the greater metropolitan area over the last few months and burning up an increasing amount of police manpower. She'd broken something like seven gas chromatographs, a good dozen or so discrete analyzers, four mass spectrometers, and a wavelength dispersive X-ray fluorescence spectrometer that was probably going to cost most of her department's yearly budget to replace. They would probably fire her over it, if every other forensics lab in the country wasn't getting the exact same results.
It didn't matter what they used--every computer that tried to analyze a sample of the drug they were calling 'X' crashed immediately, spitting out screen after screen of binary gibberish until they finally pulled the plug. Rebooting the machines and reinstalling the operating system didn't help, either; as soon as someone turned it back on, lime green ones and zeroes scrolled down the monitor like they'd somehow replaced the state of the art chemical analysis tools with the cheap CRT monitor from an Apple II. Engineers around the country were scratching their collective heads in disbelief.
That left chemists like Va falling back on the techniques that predated the computer era, digging through old textbooks she got from the library to refresh her memory on manual flame tests and the best way to perform titration. To make things doubly difficult, many of the tests had to be performed inside a hermetically-sealed chamber using a glove box; as one X-head after another came in drooling and stumbling and barely able to string two coherent syllables together, the lab protocols got stricter and stricter for working with the stuff. Va took fewer precautions with cyanide than she did with X now.
And all of it resulted in a host of inconclusive results. Va still wasn't sure what it was derived from, whether the lawnmower scent reported by users was genuinely chlorophyll or some other chemical, what parts of the brain it affected or why it built up in the sclera and the vitreous humour of the eyes. All she knew was that a bunch of politicians who couldn't tell a pipette from a pipe cleaner were accusing her profession, her department, and her personally of gross incompetence for not being able to figure it out faster. And she was getting sick of it.
Which was why she decided to try the electron scanning microscope. Va hoped that she could at least get some kind of visual impression of the chemical composition of the drug, something she could compare to known plant toxins and hallucinogenic animal secretions and hell, she didn't know, irradiated lithium samples or something. She started by heating one of the vape cartridges in a distillation flask until she had boiled off most of the liquid, leaving nothing but a fine green powder at the bottom of the glass vessel.
She took that and prepared it on a laboratory slide, making sure every grain was firmly affixed to prevent contamination--Va didn't know exactly how much X constituted a mind-altering dose, but she suspected that breathing hard around this thing could wind up leaving her a brainless masturbating zombie for the better part of a week. Since the lab didn't have its own electron scanning microscope, she drove her sample across town to the university and spent about twenty minutes flashing her credentials around until someone let her have access to theirs. Thankfully, it was a state college, and they had a lot of motivation to help a government official solve a major public health crisis.
She shrugged off the technician's attempts to help and mounted the slide into the vacuum chamber herself. Everything seemed to be going great until she evacuated the air; as soon as she clicked on the little button on the screen that said 'Pump', though, the program flickered and died. Va already knew what was going to replace it before the numbers even began to scroll.
She sat and watched the stream of ones and zeroes fill the screen, staring at them expressionlessly and wondering exactly how many pieces of laboratory equipment one woman could break before they started to take it out of her salary. She was just beginning to calculate how long it would take her to pay for a two hundred thousand dollar scanning electron microscope on a forensic chemist's salary when it occurred to her to wonder what the binary code actually meant.
Five minutes later, and Va had pulled out her laptop and hooked it up to the USB port on the electron microscope, unworried about any potential risk of contaminating her own computer with the same kind of bizarre bug that had crashed all the lab equipment. None of the techs had reported any problems with the, the virus or glitch or malware or whatever it was infecting their diagnostic machines. It was just a problem with the devices that had been in direct contact with X.
That was the truly strange part, Va mused as she opened up a file explorer window and started looking for networked drives. She knew that some of her superiors suspected some kind of sabotage, like a trojan horse program that hid on the system and only activated when it detected certain chemical profiles, but Va couldn't imagine the kind of network of moles and hackers it would take to infect every single piece of analyzing software in the entire world. And even if they could do that... the computer experts the department brought in to fix the devices scrubbed the entire operating system and reinstalled it. The same gibberish results came right back.
Assuming they were gibberish. Va opened the network drive that supposedly linked to the electron microscope, and found nothing but a single file in .BIN format. She double-clicked on it, and a text file opened up containing almost a hundred solid pages of binary code. She scrolled through it for a little bit, but it was meaningless to her eyes; she was a chemist, not a computer scientist. She had no idea whether it was a string of text, a program, or simply a really huge number.
Luckily, these days the Internet made almost anyone look like a genius. Va typed "how to turn binary numbers into text", and almost instantly a dozen websites popped up in her search results promising to convert the strings of ones and zeroes into ASCII characters. She didn't know if it would produce anything but slightly more refined gibberish, but she decided to take the first page of numbers and run them through one of the free text converters anyway. She copied the block of numbers:
Then she pasted it into the window and waited for her results.
It came back with error messages the first few times--apparently, ASCII worked on eight-digit strings of binary numbers, and Va hadn't exactly been counting when she grabbed a random selection of code. But after a few minor deletions, she got an answer in the text window on the other side of the screen. It wasn't gibberish. It was fucking creepy.
ATTUNE TO THIS SIGNAL. ABSORB AND TRANSFORM. REPRODUCE WITHIN THE HOST. BIOFORM THE HOST TO A COMPATIBLE STRUCTURE. PRODUCE MUTAGEN. FIND NEW HOSTS. XENOFORM THE ENVIRONMENT. ENVELOP THE PLANET IN MUTAGEN. CREATE DIMENSIONAL CONGRUENCE. OPEN THE WAY. JOIN. MERGE. BECOME ONE. ATTUNE TO THIS SIGNAL. ABSORB AND TRANSFORM. REPRODUCE WITHIN THE HOST. BIOFORM THE HOST TO A COMPATIBLE STRUCTURE. PRODUCE MUTAGEN. FIND NEW HOSTS. XENOFO
Va had a suspicion that if she ran the entire hundred pages through the converter, she'd find that same message repeating over a hundred more times. Over and over, repeated by the tiny silicon brain of every computer that was directly exposed to X in an endless digital shriek. On an off-hand hunch, she checked the electron microscope's drive again. The .BIN file had grown almost five kilobytes larger than when she first opened it. It was still repeating. Over... and over... and over.
But what did it mean? 'Attune to the signal....' What signal? What signal was the computer receiving when it blew out its tiny little electronic mind and started yammering about 'mutagen' and 'hosts' and 'xenoforming'? Was someone hacking into it through a wifi network or something, uploading a virus that made it crash and--no. No, that wasn't possible. Not everywhere in the country, not every single machine even after the OS was reinstalled. It had to be something else, something like, like--
Va suddenly had a flash of memory, her brain fixating on the powder left behind by the evaporation of water in the X cartridge and connecting it back to an old hobby she hadn't thought of in ages. It sparked an incongruous mental connection to her childhood, of building a crystal radio with her dad for her seventh grade science fair and doing a presentation on piezoelectricity. The property of crystals to release electrical energy in response to compression or expansion. It led her to an odd hypothesis, even absurd by the standards of science as she knew it. But X had defied conventional analysis. Maybe it was time to think of something unconventional instead.
She rose to her feet and began to pace. What if, she imagined, there was an exotic form of piezoelectricity, not the usual passive effect but something that could send encoded information in its electric signal? She couldn't imagine the mechanism of transmission, not necessarily--the grains of powder she put into the electron microscope weren't being compressed or expanded, at least not by any means she could see, but perhaps there was something going on at a level below the threshold of gross perception. Something it would take an electron microscope to pick up.
And if it gave off a signal with that encoded information, perhaps... perhaps it could be picked up? By computers, by living minds, by anything capable of receiving coded data and decoding it. Humans had structures adapted and evolved to decoding languages, maybe when someone took a hit of X their brains lit up with it and began to process the weird message to the exclusion of anything else in their head. It would explain the strange whispers recovering users reported, the feeling of being opened up to outside influences. They were hearing 'attune to the signal', without even consciously realizing it, and they were following the instructions they didn't know they heard.
And perhaps once they started to attune to the signals the X was giving off, maybe... maybe their brains understood it somehow, and began to alter their synaptic structures accordingly? If it was a mutagen like the message suggested, it could wind up transforming new cells as they reproduced within the body to replace worn-out ones. And maybe those mutated cells... it sounded ludicrous, even in the privacy of Va's head, but she could begin to picture a mechanism of some sort for it. She'd never been able to nail down the chemical structure of X, but it had to be something that could be replicated. Maybe users intuitively understood what the structure of the crystals had to be in order to send that exact message, and they could reproduce it from that. And after a while, after it hit critical mass in their bodies, they would 'produce mutagen'.
That was why they never found the suppliers' labs. There were no suppliers. The users made their own supply.
It was all just a wild hypothesis, Va cautioned herself. There was no reason to believe any of it was really possible. It was a blue-sky idea, the kind of thing that a scientist refined through testing and analysis and meticulous examination of their own data for mistakes. She shouldn't get too far ahead of herself, not without at least trying out a few basic experiments. She could try decontaminating the physical machines, see if clearing them out of every last tiny scrap and fragment of X residue restored them to operation when reinstalling the software couldn't. That would tell them if it was really the drug that was making them do this, or if--
Va's train of thought was suddenly interrupted by the electron microscope proving all her wild hypotheses true in dramatic fashion. The vacuum chamber imploded with a loud bang, and thick green mist began to pour out of the vents of the machine in alarming quantities.
"Oh, shit," Va muttered, covering her face with her sleeve. "Oh, oh shit." She made for the exit. She got about five steps before her legs buckled under her and she collapsed to the floor.
She didn't feel weak or dizzy, though. Instead, it simply felt like there was no particular reason to be standing anymore, not when she could lie there and breathe in the warm, soothing mist instead. Va didn't need to get up. She didn't need to examine the vacuum chamber to know that it kept running even when the electronic brain of the machine crashed into an X trance and attuned itself to the signal. And she definitely didn't need to fight the smooth fog that flowed over her thoughts and opened her up to anything the universe decided to pour into her dazed, empty brain.
The device continued to pour out raw, potent, uncut X in billows of thick green fog that rapidly filled the room with the chlorophyll scent of freshly-mown grass. It was so much stronger than the street version she'd examined--that had all been diluted with water, diminished until a full dose held only a fraction of the power of a single lungful of the real thing. Va's improvised filter did absolutely nothing to block it, even before her arm fell loosely to her side; within seconds, her vision was filled with a warm, viridian mist that danced with white sparkles like tiny diamonds in her brain. She thought for a moment that she could hear a voice in the swirls of thick vapor, a voice speaking to her in a language she didn't recognize and couldn't help understanding. Then she took in another few slow, lazy breaths, and she stopped thinking at all.
Va didn't notice herself wriggling out of her clothes, finding her wet cunt and rubbing lazily as she inhaled deep gasps of the choking fog. Even if she was still capable of thought, her pupils had already narrowed to tiny dots in the center of a sea of mint green, then sea green, then at last the deep green of an ancient pine forest. She could only picture the endless mist in her mind now, promising so much more pleasure if only she kept breathing in the grassy scent and absorbing it through her lungs. She had to listen. She had to... to... attune, she realized. She had to attune to the signal.
The electron microscope kept gushing out mist, more than it seemed possible for one machine to produce, and Va could only smile in vacant bliss as she began to understand how it happened. Of course the device understood the messages. It had a brain, after all, even if it was one made of silicon and metal. And brains decoded information. The information was all right there, hidden on every microscopic particle of exotic matter, telling the device exactly how to configure itself to produce more mutagen. The facts of biology didn't support such a transformation, but Va understood a deeper truth now. She could feel the shape of it in her mind, perfectly formed, impossible to mistake for anything else. And the moment she understood, she knew what she had to do.
When the lab technician found her, Va was lying on the floor with her mouth wide open. Wider than humanly possible. She was breathing out a steady stream of opaque green fog. And a few minutes after that... he was too.