Stan and Gary waited in the glow of the candle. Quiet whispers hissed nearby; Stan peered around into the darkness but saw nothing. He turned to Gary. “What happens now?”
Gary looked down at his hands fidgeting with his robes. He shook his head. “I don’t know. I just want it to be over already. I’m horny.”
The candle flickered, and the echoes of strange murmurs swirled around the table. The temperature in the room dropped sharply. Emerging from the darkness opposite them, a thin figure limped toward Stan and Gary, dressed in a fine silk toga. His skin was dreadfully pale; veins patterned his face and shoulders. His right arm hung limp at his side. His face was gaunt and slender, with jutting cheekbones and sunken, lifeless eyes. He was completely hairless.
Stan squinted at the ghoulish man before him. “Good grief… Alexei?”
“You know him?” whispered Gary.
“He was my butler. But he disappeared a few months ago. I never knew what happened to him.” Stan stood up and smiled. “Alexei, is that you?”
The pale man bared two rows of black teeth in a wide, distorted grin. “Hello, Mr Berserkervich. Yes, it is me.”
“You look different,” said Stan. “Ha! I suppose I am used to seeing you in a suit. I tell you what, after you left, I had a terrible time finding a good butler. My new one burns my toast every morning.”
Alexei wheezed a slow breath and made his way around the table. “I regret I had to leave your service suddenly, Mr Berserkervich. My masters deemed the operation complete, and I was promoted and assigned to matters elsewhere. By way of apology, please allow me to have your new butler terminated, and replaced with one who will not burn your toast.”
“Oh… Well, that’s very kind of you, Alexei,” said Stan. “Thank you.” He sat down.
“Mr Berserkervich, Mr Shemp,” said Alexei, reaching their side of the table and bowing slightly, “I represent the pharmaceutical companies, and have been instructed to speak with you today.”
“The pharmaceutical companies?” said Gary. “The government has already bought half a billion booster shots. I don’t think we need any more right now.”
“Rest assured,” said Alexei, “I am not selling anything. I have been sent only to instruct you in matters to come. The Superior Ones are pleased with your readily-given allegiance, but your lack of competence disappoints them. The Superior Ones acknowledge their failure in this issue. The Superior Ones believed money would be sufficient motivation for your success, but they have now seen there is a greater determining factor, which has become an obstruction to their goals. The purpose of my visit here today is to convert the obstruction into an advantage. The Superior Ones have determined that if you were entrusted with privileged information, this would inflate your sense of importance and improve your effectiveness. You wish, above all, to be great. What I say today will seem to you an offer of greatness. Your egos, gentlemen, which overrode even the desire for money, will be turned into the driving force of your pursuit of the Superior Ones’ satisfaction. In short, sirs, I will tell you secrets, the secrets will make you feel special, and the special feeling will make you obedient.”
“Your arm is falling off,” said Stan.
Gary nodded. “Yeah, I was gonna say something. That doesn’t look healthy.”
Alexei looked down at his right arm. It had detached from his shoulder, and now drooped to just above the floor, suspended by a single rubbery strand of flesh. “Please excuse my abnormal physical state, gentlemen. As part of my rise in the pharmaceutical industry hierarchy, I am experiencing a transition.”
“Is it painful?” asked Gary.
“No,” said Alexei. “Physical pain is dulled considerably once a person has forfeited his soul.”
“Hmm,” said Gary, nodding to Stan.
“But to the point, gentlemen,” said Alexei, “please allow me to share some positive upcoming developments. After your elections, about which Mr Grenidge has already instructed you, the goal will be a fully vaccinated society. From infancy, every citizen will be required to comply. Those who don’t will be excluded, and eventually eliminated. Furthermore, we are working toward daily booster vaccinations.”
“Daily vaccinations?” said Gary.
“Yes, Mr Shemp. If diabetes patients can take daily injections, then so can everyone else. Anything less is profits down the drain. Most people will be happy, even proud, to self-vaccinate daily.”
Stan pointed to Alexei’s face. “Your um… Your ear is…”
Alexei tilted his head; his ear, which was sliding slowly down the side of his face, dropped off and slapped the floor like a slimy chunk of ham. “Please, try to ignore my transition and focus on what I am saying,” he said. “Technological developments will also be implemented. The Superior Ones will have total surveillance, total oversight of every person on the planet. You gentlemen will play a key role in making Australia a society governed by medical heteronomy, facial recognition software, internet and phone surveillance, financial monitoring, compliance checks, limitations of speech and expression, and the enforcing of state-approved thought. You will be the ministers of the Superior Ones’ authority, and you will save your country.”
Stan’s eyes widened in wonder. Gary nodded to himself. Alexei’s scalp split open, his skin unfolding from the top of his head all the way to his feet. The fleshy shell of his original form crumpled to the floor in a gooey skin pile, and he emerged anew. He was humanoid still, but with some noticeable differences. He was covered in scales, for one. Bright, slick scales that refracted light like a puddle of oil. There were two small lumps where his eyes had been, and now he had a single new eye, in the middle of his forehead. His mouth was wide and reptilian. He had no arms, but there was a long tentacle squirming from the back of his neck. It flicked and whipped about, then wrapped itself three times around his chest and remained there, pulsing.
“Amazing,” whispered Gary.
“I know,” said Stan. “I’m going to save the country.”
The two leaders smiled at each other. Alexei quietly departed, sliding on his slimy feet into the darkness.
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