By Vaughan Stanger
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
The guy who'd been waiting for the lights to change at Fifth and Main staggered across the street, veering towards me like a homing torpedo even as I tried to step out of his way. I had to be his intended target, since no one else was standing outside Geraldo's on that bitter February evening. Most likely he wanted to beg a cigarette off me.
I figured him for a street-person. Anyone else would have binned that overcoat and cap years ago. Plus he sported a week's worth of beard and the body odor of someone who hadn't showered during that time either. Wraparound shades meant I couldn't see his eyes. I assumed bloodshot, though hopefully not feverish from the flu. When he began speaking, his voice creaked like he hadn't used it recently. Not that I could make out his words over the traffic noise.
"What'd you say?"
He slipped off his shades, revealing a ferocious stare that reminded me of some of conversations I'd had with the bathroom mirror over the years.
He tried again. "I bring you a message..."
"A message of truth from the multiverse!"
That should have been my cue to cut and run, yet some weird quality of his voice--a hint of remorse, maybe-- shackled my legs. I resigned myself to hearing whatever nonsense he was peddling.
"Look, pal," I said. "Just tell me what you think I ought to know-- and then we'll both be on our way, okay?"
"You sure you're ready to hear it?"
"What, your message? Yeah, just get on with it!"
"Okay," he said, but then paused, as if reconsidering my suitability to receive his wisdom. Finally, with my patience nearing exhaustion, he heaved a sigh and speared me with his gaze.
"One is one."
"Huh? What? Is that it?"
He nodded while shuddering like a man relieved of a burden.
"Pass it on," he said, seemingly as an afterthought.
And with that, The One Guy-- as I subsequently dubbed him-- disappeared. And yeah, I do mean disappeared. He didn't run off or climb into a parked car. Instead he faded out, as if some cosmic TV producer had clicked the 'Dissolve' button.
I flicked away half a cigarette's worth of ash while pondering whether I ought to drink less from now on.
"One is one!" I announced to a passing car.
I shook my head. No way was I passing that on.
Turns out I couldn't have been more wrong.
One is one.
Next morning, the phrase bubbled into my mind the moment I woke. It nagged at me while I sipped my coffee, distracted me from my largely meaningless daily routine.
So what did The One Guy mean by the phrase? And how come he'd looked so relieved after he'd said it?
"One is one" could mean a bunch of different things. It all depended how one defined "one".
Majoring in Humanities hadn't qualified me for a worthwhile job, but neither had it quenched my natural curiosity.
One: meaning unity; united.
One: meaning sole, single, only, distinct.
One: meaning you, thou, second person singular.
Other possibilities existed, but those were the main ones.
So then, what about "one is one"?
Could it mean something like: "you're on your own"? Olivia might have wanted to deliver a belated kiss-off, but she'd text something a lot more insulting. So The One Guy's message didn't come from her. But in any case, he'd claimed he was delivering "a message of truth from the multiverse". Skim-reading the relevant Wikipedia article introduced me to the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Theory. My brain soon waved the white flag.
"One is one," I muttered to myself.
Pretty much meaningless, I decided.
With hindsight, I should have kept the phrase to myself, rather than letting it loose on an unsuspecting world. But misery craves company, hence:
Michael Templeton @mikenofuture 11:15
Today's puzzle is "One is one". What does it mean to you? #thethingspeoplesay #one-is-one #wtf
Typically, only Ziggy replied, presumably while snatching a break from his corporate IT chores.
@mikenofuture Don't have a clue, dude, but I'll put it out there.
I left it to the wisdom of the in-crowd to supply an answer.
Thanks to Ziggy, #one-is-one went viral overnight. When I logged on after breakfast, Twitter was buzzing with the meme. One week later, the first #one-is-one themed game show aired on national TV. It had got so bad I couldn't enter my local bar without some punter accosting me on the subject.
"So, bud, what's your angle on 'one is one'?"
I'd shake my head and walk away, bemused but secretly delighted, even though I'd already lost my chance to exploit the meme. In any case, it wasn't my creation. The One Guy could take the blame for that, for it was already obvious there would be consequences.
"One is one."
"One is one."
"One is one."
A lot of people were chanting the damned thing.
Within days, every public building in the city was locked, while the mental health hospitals heaved with victims. Worse, the #one-is-One phenomenon had gone global, since The One Guy's phrase translated more or less universally. Even more distressing to me: my best buddy was one of the first to succumb.
I traipsed around the city's mental hospitals until I found a harassed-looking nurse holding fort at a reception desk, who confirmed Ziggy's admission.
"But you're not allowed in, for your own safety," she said, her eyes glittering with panic. "This thing is appallingly infectious."
The irony was not lost on me.
I pleaded with the nurse but to no avail.
Outside, I sat on a low wall pounding my fists against the concrete.
Good work there, bud!
Fortunately my self-pity soon turned into a steely resolve to put things right. After all, if I could infect people with this meme, then surely I could disinfect them too; provided, of course, the Internet didn't die in the meantime.
One is none. Pass it on! #mindscrub #killthememe
One is many. Pass it on! #mindscrub #killthememe
One is dumb. Pass it on! #mindscrub #killthememe
Observing several immediate retweets meant I climbed into bed feeling cautiously optimistic. But that night I dreamed of dangling by my neck from a lamp-post.
I awoke to memetic Armageddon.
The infection's terminal phase kicked off during one of those sealed-house Reality TV shows. Despite precautions, "One is one" had found a way in. Maybe one of the production assistants didn't notice a tooth-implant phone chip. The show's producers ordered an immediate lock-down, but the damage was done. The febrile atmosphere in the house coupled with the occupants' boredom created the perfect conditions for memetic polymerisation, as one of the show's studio commentators dubbed the phenomenon before she too succumbed.
"One is one!"
"One is one is one!"
"One is one is one is one is ..."
Within seconds every wannabe watching the show had taken up the chant. By midnight, the ever-expanding meme had clogged innumerable minds all over the world. Well, not mine, obviously. Immune but infectious: I was the Typhoid Mary of memetic transmission.
Exactly as intended, I realised, while recalling how purposefully The One Guy had homed in on me.
The signs of imminent global collapse were obvious, measured most poignantly by the precipitous drop-off in tweets.
Two days later the power grid failed.
So: farewell Internet; goodbye television; cheerio to the contents of my icebox. Within days everyone would be starving, albeit mostly too mind-raddled to care. Chanting their collective doom from their sofas and beds, they'd be easy fodder for rats.
"One is one is one is one is one is..."
Hearing the phrase in my head made me want puke, but when I knelt over the toilet bowl nothing came up.
Back on my feet, I wobbled to and fro while the bathroom danced around me. My limbs ached; my sinuses felt like someone had injected them with molten lead.
It was bird flu all right.
I dry-gulped a couple of painkillers and slumped onto my sofa.
The short nap I'd intended must have lasted a couple or three days, judging by the epic thirst that greeted my awakening. After slaking my thirst with water which, to my amazement, spurted from the bathroom faucet, I staggered outside in search of food.
Only when the door to my apartment banged shut behind me did I realise that the power had come back on while I slept.
I trudged along the icy sidewalks, shivering in the cold. At first I rationalised the absence of corpses by telling myself they'd mostly be indoors. But when I found a street-person lolling in a doorway, his snores confirming he remained amongst the living, I realised my understanding of the situation was completely out of whack. A passing delivery vehicle supplied further evidence to that effect.
The street-person remained oblivious while I robbed him of his filthy cap and overcoat, doubtless because of the unlabelled bottle of liquor he'd consumed. I didn't feel good about this act of theft-- quite the opposite in fact-- but I figured that, in my present fragile state, I needed the protection more than he did.
The blaring of a car horn on Main Street jolted me out of my introspection. Unable to reconcile the evidence of my senses with what I knew had happened, I stumbled into Geraldo's, where I found the usual gang of punters sitting on their bar stools, bitching about the price of gas.
Surely the phrase couldn't have drained from their minds while I lay comatose on my sofa?
I stared at the wall-mounted television for several minutes before asking the barman to click through the channels. Nothing: no mention of "One-is-one"; no silly game shows; no chanting wannabes. I could think of only three possibilities: that I'd imagined the whole thing; or I'd travelled back in time; or...
The One Guy had told me his message came from the multiverse. Logically then, this must be another world, one which differed from mine in a single, vital respect. The giddiness I'd experienced hadn't signified the onset of flu, but instead heralded my transfer here, to the next world in the series. My subsequent downtime must have been my body's way of dealing with the shock.
Poor new world: perfectly prepped for memetic infection, same as mine.
"One is one," I muttered under my breath.
I waited a few seconds, just in case, but my mind remained clear. Evidently my immunity had survived the transfer. I didn't know whether to feel relieved or distraught, but at least I now understood my situation-- and the decision I would have to make. There I stood, sipping a Bud, while I pondered the ethics of uttering a phrase capable of triggering Armageddon.
Just because I could didn't mean I should.
Granted, a parallel version of me had chosen to infect my world with the meme, but that didn't mean I had to follow suit. Why would I choose to annihilate everyone in this world?
I contemplated the myriad versions of me inhabiting the multiverse. We might not be saints, but I couldn't believe we were sinners, at least not to such an appalling degree.
I simply couldn't do it.
But he-- or rather, I-- had done precisely that. So there must be a reason. If he could figure it out, then so could I.
What if "Pass it on" was not just the vector for the "One is one" virus, but also a relay baton of sorts? In which case, the act of passing on the instruction to the next world-hopper in line might rid me of the infection. But what about those I'd left behind? Would they be free of it too?
It required a leap of faith on my part, but not to make it would guarantee the worst possible outcome for seven billion souls, not to mention Ziggy. Whatever else I was, I wasn't a coward.
I chugged the remainder of my beer and stepped outside into the freezing air.
As I'd anticipated, the traffic noise drowned out my words.
He asked, "What'd you say?"
The poor guy maintained his bemused expression all the way through my spiel.
His world faded out for me as soon as I finished saying "Pass it on".
Back home, no street lights glowed, no car horns blared. Nothing had changed, at least not yet.
Aware that saving the world would require the skills of someone much better connected than me, I started with Ziggy.
My best friend lay on his hospital bed, looking like death and smelling worse. An empty saline drip snaked from his skeletal arm. His eyes were closed.
"One is one," he croaked.
I dripped water onto his swollen tongue.
"One and one is two," I said.
On the sixth repetition, his eyes fluttered open. A ghost of a grin twitched over his face.
"Welcome back, Ziggy."
"Cool, dude," he said.
Ziggy and I distributed the antidotes swiftly enough to save a lot of people. It's amazing what you can do with wind-up laptops and solar-powered, self-configuring networks. Luckily my initial efforts at disinfection had done some good. A lot of perceptive folk had noticed the writing on the wall, so to speak, and hunkered down to wait out Armageddon. Even so, there are an awful lot of corpses.
Infection remains a huge problem, but this time we're talking the biological kind. It's going to be a long and difficult haul for the human race, but I don't doubt we'll make it.
Only a handful of folk know the whole story, hence who to blame. Ziggy has had a quiet word with them. They know I did all I could to make amends, which must count for something. And during the daytime, my contrition serves me well enough. If only the same were true at night. I lie here on my camp bed, tossing and turning in the darkness, trying to square my supposedly good heart with the death toll.
Needless to say, I can't.
However hard I try not to dwell on something I cannot change, I find myself wondering how this thing got started in the first place-- and what that says about me.
Because there's no getting away from it:
I am the one.
Note from Kasma's editor: this wonderful story was first published in Cat's Breakfast: Kurt Vonnegut Tribute (Third Flatiron Publishing, 2017)