Karol was driving into work, running late again, feeling the usual unpleasant mixture of tension, regret, and a refusal to do anything differently. He was sitting in traffic now, which wasn't really moving, and looking out the window. For the past few days he had been trying to ignore the great gash of fire in the middle of the sky, which was clearly pushing closer and closer to the earth. Karol used to think it looked like an eye, and as it got closer or grew bigger (there was really no way to tell which it was), it began looking angrier. At some point, though, it had stopped looking like an eye to Karol and started looking like a mouth. And that was the worst part, because as a mouth it didn't look angry, didn't even look hungry, but it was clearly alive. Now that it was getting closer you could see some of the flames, the writhing curlicues of fire, and the whole thing was pulsing, almost reaching out like a set of lips. Karol kept thinking he knew what they were if they weren't hungry or angry, but he couldn't bring himself to really put it into words. For some reason, that bothered him too much.
But now, sitting in traffic, he couldn't help but look at the great gash of fire in the sky. As it pressed closer to the earth everything was getting hotter, and no one seemed to have any idea of what to do about it. Karol slept very uneasily in the heat. Last night he had had another bad dream. He didn't remember most of what happened, or who was in it. But the main thing, the thing that had bothered Karol so much, was being trapped in some kind of room. The walls were clean, the floor had blue tiles, and the lighting had a slight blue tint that you didn't notice at first but that threw everything off when you did. There were no windows, and Karol couldn't remember why he was there or whether there was any way out. He was looking around for windows, vents, some kind of way out a little higher up on the walls. When he turned back towards the center of the room, there was a large, hairy spider in the middle of the floor. Karol knew he had seen others like it before, but he couldn't remember the name of it. It was moving away from Karol, but that somehow made it worse, much worse when it turned back to look at him. As it moved away from him, it got bigger and bigger. It was the hair that was really horrifying Karol. Waves of terror and disgust would throw themselves up through him, so strong he could feel pressure in his ears. But really, it wasn't even the hair so much as it was the body underneath, and the way he could see the body twist and strain under the hair, especially when it would turn to look back at him. Karol tossed and turned all night, and every time he fell back asleep, he'd be back in the same room, and the same thing would start all over again.
Finally the traffic started moving, and Karol arrived at the office park where he worked. He parked towards the back of the lot, as he usually did, and stood there looking out through the chain link fence before he turned and walked in towards work. He could really feel the heat from the sky. And something new, he realized-he could hear voices coming from the fiery mouth. They were screams. As Karol walked on he tried to figure out what they sounded like, why they were screaming, and eventually he realized they sounded like screams of despair. He did not look up once as he walked across the parking lot. By the time he got to the door of his building he had broken a sweat.
The building was air conditioned, but it wasn't really much cooler inside. The air was warm and stale. Karol walked down the hall to his office, wondering if anyone would notice he was late. At the end of the hall was a large poster with a smug-looking man on it, standing with his arms crossed and smirking. Across the top and bottom of the poster were the words, "Be A Maker, Not A Taker." Karol usually ignored the poster, but today he couldn't help but notice that the man looked sallow, almost sick.
Karol hadn't even sat down at his desk when his supervisor, Bradley, was standing at the door. Usually Karol could hear him coming down the hall, and he thought it was strange that he somehow hadn't. But it was clear from the expression on Bradley's face that Karol had no time for idle curiosity.
"Good morning, Karol," he said impishly.
"Good morning, Bradley," Karol replied. He was wary, but tried to seem casual and unconcerned.
"You are late again. I think we need to begin this morning with you audibly reciting the Creed to me."
Karol tensed up a little, but tried not to let Bradley see it. He disliked the Creed, and disliked Bradley, but more than anything he knew he was in trouble and was nervous about what else Bradley had in store for him.
"Yes, certainly. The Market is the source of all value. Efficiency is the only good. All things are justified in the service of Profit." He paused. "A rising tide lifts all boats. There's no such thing as a free lunch."
Bradley was looking at him, decidedly unimpressed. "And?" Karol wasn't sure what to say. He thought he had probably forgotten one, but he couldn't think of what it would be. He looked blankly back at Bradley.
"We are in the business here of converting the minds of the masses, Karol. But you must also be vigilant with your own mind. You must make sure that you yourself believe, and at a higher level than they do." He paused, and gave Karol a harder look. "So…recite the personal Creed, Karol."
Karol cleared his throat and looked down. "Desire is the true seat of the self. Acquisition is the center of value. To want to acquire is human, to want and acquire is divine." Karol felt stupid mouthing the words of the Creed. The longer he had remained at this Stage of Attainment, and driven into the same office park every day, the less he felt any desire at all, for anything. All he really felt was a kind of deadened boredom, which by now had become indifference. The only thing that really interested him anymore was the great gash of fire in the sky. But, at this point, even that made him feel little beyond despair and impotence. He knew that was going to end badly for him, for everyone, but he also knew there was nothing he could do. Although he would occasionally feel uneasy about it, in truth he really didn't care much. Sometimes he still felt curiosity about it, but mostly he tried to ignore it and forget that it kept getting closer.
Bradley was still looking at him. "Sit down and let's get to work." Karol sat down and turned on the computer. "Your work needs to get much better, Karol. You're still writing pompous Wikipedia entries peppered with our propaganda. That was fine when you were starting out, and when people still paid attention to that kind of thing, but you need to evolve now. Look at what is effective," Bradley said, and pointed to a message he had sent Karol.
Karol opened the message and looked at the examples. People no longer flocked to the same few major sites; everything was driven by clickbait headlines now. These were apparently some of the best, or at least the ones Bradley wanted Karol to imitate. "Rebel Wilson may have lied about her age. This is why that makes her a hero." "This man refused to do his job. Here's why that makes him a hero." Karol glanced over the rest and thought he saw a pattern. He opened his web program and began writing one of his own. "This man kicked a dog. Here's why that makes him a hero."
"Not amusing, Karol. Try again."
Karol sat for a moment, then typed, "This man has the clap. See why that makes him a hero."
This time Bradley said nothing but simply hit Karol in the back of the head with a book. "If your performance metrics do not improve dramatically, you will not make it to the next Stage of Attainment. Again. And if that happens, your next go-through at this level will be decidedly less pleasant."
Bradley stopped, and seemed to consider something. "Outrage will bring them in just as effectively, Karol. Anger…hatred, really, is the goal. If you can make them feel that, it will be just as good as if you can get them to follow the Creed…which perhaps you yourself do not believe anymore." Karol froze for a moment when he heard those last words, but after a pause Bradley added, "In fact, you will be going deeper than the Creed. I shouldn't tell you that, but it won't matter much after today."
Karol wasn't sure what that meant, but he was relieved that Bradley didn't seem to care about the Creed and whether Karol believed it. He turned his attention back to the screen, and after a minute or two something came to him.
"What they tried to do will shock and disgust you," he wrote.
"That is acceptable as a beginning," Bradley said.
Karol thought a bit more. "This man is a threat to us all. Why will the authorities do nothing?"
"Good," said Bradley, "definite progress. Remember, action, Karol. We want to move them to act, and to do something irrevocable."
Karol sat and began to feel absorbed by the work. He seemed to feel a surge of encouragement from where Bradley was standing behind him. For the first time in a long, long while he was feeling something, though he was too focused on the work to realize that at the moment.
Suddenly, something popped into his head, and he felt a frisson of excitement and relief. "Parasites, criminals, and terrorists are infiltrating the government to destroy our freedoms. They are being led by this man. WHO WILL HAVE THE COURAGE TO DO WHAT MUST BE DONE?"
"Good. Continue, exactly like that," Bradley said, his voice sharp and triumphant.
"Just the clickbait," Karol asked, as Bradley strode out of his office.
"Yes," Bradley answered, tossing the words back over his shoulder. "Tanner and Ham can write the rest. They need all the work they can get." Bradley's cloven hooves made a heavy rapping sound as he walked down the hall, but Karol was too absorbed in the work to notice. He spent the rest of the morning churning out dozens more headlines, feeling with each one that he better understood how to provoke the response he wanted.
Karol worked into the early afternoon, well past the time most people took lunch. When he made it down to the cafeteria, it was almost empty. As he walked in he was shocked to see what looked like a decomposing corpse coming towards him. He later realized it must have been Anders, a worker in a different unit. Anders had the highest performance metrics in the entire office park, so he had lost his sight. Now it seemed that the flesh was falling away from his face. He was talking to a woman Karol didn't recognize. Karol looked away as they passed, and heard just a little of what Anders was saying. His voice was rasping and chalky. "…so I think that's why I started losing the flesh. I had never thought about it before, but it makes sense. It really makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?"
Karol couldn't eat much after seeing Anders' face. He took some tapioca back up to his office. He sat there looking out the window as he ate it, watching the cars drive by and carefully avoiding looking up at the sky. By now it was so hot Karol was sweating through his shirt. The great gash of fire seemed to be accelerating as it got closer, something Karol thought he had noticed before. The tapioca was pasty and flavorless, and Karol ate it slowly. He was thinking about the morning's work. It seemed strange to him how angry his postings had been, how unlike his usual personality. When he thought back on what Karol called his "private missteps," he had rarely been angry, and never really violent. Mainly he remembered the way he had manipulated various women into sleeping with him, the things he had said to deceive them, the casual cruelty of the words he would use to get rid of them. Worse than that was the night he had hit someone on a bicycle and then driven off. But that was just bad luck, not really violent or angry. He thought about these things, slowly sucking the tapioca off the plastic spoon, and wondered what he was supposed to think or feel about them. At some point in the past he thought he had felt regret, but there didn't seem to be any point in that now. It all seemed so long ago, and impossible to change in any case. There was a word people used to describe things like this, but Karol couldn't remember it. Coming up blank like that made him think of the spider whose name he also couldn't remember, and then the dream started coming back to him. So he threw away what was left of the tapioca and turned back to the computer.
Suddenly Bradley was at his door, with another man Karol had never seen before. "Good news, Karol," he said, and he was smiling at him, looking almost benevolent. The other man was tall and thin and said nothing. He was pale and had a large head with straw-like red hair and lots of freckles. He stood there smiling down at Karol, his big round head bobbing up and down on his thin neck. Bradley continued, "There's been some violence, including a shooting. We've successfully traced them back to your postings. That alone probably gives you a sufficient performance metric to advance to the next Stage of Attainment. And reports are still coming in."
"Someone was shot? Who?" And just as Karol asked this, he thought he saw, just for a second, the other man's face, his vacant simper and dusty freckles, tighten and shrink down into an angry, sinister pinch-then just for an instant his face flashed into eight eyes and furry fangs, a hairy halo of puffed and swollen outrage and obscenity all around him. Karol shot his glance back over at him, but he was still the same amiable, witless Howdy Doody replica. "It doesn't matter," said Bradley. "Some agitator. You'll receive a notification. Be sure you accept the score, Karol. You need to accept it." They both went to leave, and Bradley turned back. "And congratulations, Karol. A job well done."
Karol looked back down at his screen and saw that he did indeed have a notification. He opened it and began to read. By now the sweat was pouring down his face and falling onto his keyboard, and he just wanted to get rid of the sticky, pasty taste of the tapioca that somehow kept getting stronger and more unpleasant. Karol saw the link he was supposed to click to accept the score. He hesitated, and started to pull open his shirt. The walls began to shake, as they were being ripped up out of the ground, and Karol realized the entire building was being sucked up into the mouth of flames. He could hear the screaming all around him, though it was no longer the wails of despair but something much more fierce and penetrating. Finally, Karol realized, here was the hunger, but it wasn't a hunger for nourishment or pleasure. The deafening scream was for something like annihilation, though Karol knew it was going to be much worse than annihilation. He looked back down at the computer screen, still unsure of whether to accept the score. But now the computer died, and in the black reflection of the dead screen Karol saw a face no longer really human but which he could still recognize as his own.