The Limit of Influence

“And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall.” 

- E.A. Poe, The Masque of the Red Death

 

     It started in the Myndr chips. By the time they realized it, the first wave had left half the population catatonic. First they heard the notification. The familiar chime resonating in their heads. They opened their vision scan to see what it was. Dopamine fired between their neurons. The Pavlovian reaction to received attention. When they opened the scan, there it was. The mask.

     Projected onto the convex fold of their cornea appeared the specter of the Binary Virus. A twisted, red face, split and merged together. Half smile, half grimace, combined into a grotesque blend. It was the last thing they saw. And the only face they’d see again.

     The first wave stopped in place. Frozen. Wide eyed. Staring into the glowing red mask. They didn’t speak. Didn’t blink. All they did was stop. And project the Binary Virus from their own glowing eyes.

     When they were found, friends and family ran to help. Strangers full of spite broke down stall doors to ask what the hell they were still doing in there. They approached and looked into the stagnant eyes. There they saw the mask illuminated in each eye. 

     Then they stopped. They saw the mask themselves. Millions of lovers and enemies. Condemned to wither in place. The light of the red mask glowing in their eyes, until the lights went out. Weeds and roots grew into their bones.

 

     @PrinceProspo had been spared the first wave. His staff warned him that a virus was spreading through Myndr chips. They told him how it spread. @PrinceProspo dove into action. He enabled a task force of his staff and interns to search out survivors. 

     Not just any survivors, however. @PrinceProspo drafted a list of the 100 top influencers he deemed strategic to shelter. He blindfolded his task force and sent them out in his personal ZoomPods, their destinations plugged into the vehicle mapping system. The task force collected what survivors they found. Voice and touch were their only searchlights. As day receded to dusk, they returned to the compound with a total of 77 survivors. 

     @PrinceProspo, who was not really a prince but an inheritor of a sickening fortune, received his guests in his banquet hall with an indulgent feast. Bottles of the finest wine and liquor were drained amongst bloody meats and produce so organic it still smelled of manure. The guests gorged themselves while sharing their harrowing tales of survival. Most had been asleep in bed, but the alcohol permitted them playful exaggeration. After all, their audiences of followers were dead. They only had each other to influence.

     As the conversation began to peak in passion and volume, @PrinceProspero clinked his wine glass with a steak knife, shattering it to pieces. It was immediately replaced by a silent butler.

     “Friends. Aquaintances...Competitors.”

     A muffled chuckle from the room.

     “I brought you here, that we might ride out this tide of human collapse. You are safe here. Out there…” he pointed to the now barred windows behind him. “Out there, is pure mayhem! Catatonic violence! The Binary Virus!”

     A collective shudder caused the unconsumed alcohol to tremble in its glass.

     “However! I must lay out three rules for your stay here. Follow them unequivocally.”

     He paused. 

     “Our lives depend on it.”

     The reflection of the dining table and its attendants stretched out in the lenses of his opaque glasses. 

     “One! I have from the most reliable source that the virus is initially caught through an invasion of Myndr chips. It appears that the first wave of victims received a notification from an unknown source. Upon opening the message, they were met with a most ghastly image.”

     “What was it?” Yelled out @KittenSlayer from the far end of the table.

     @PrinceProspo turned his head towards the direction of the voice.

     “Unfortunately, all those who have seen it have fallen victim themselves...However, one noble martyr made a point of narrating his own demise as he looked into the eyes of his infected wife. His last words were ‘Red  theater mask. Split in two.’”

     Silence filled the great banquet hall. @PrinceProspo revelled in it.

     “In light of this, the first rule is as follows. Under no circumstances, none at all, is anyone to open any Myndr notifications. I know as well as any of you this is a challenge. Our very livelihoods depend on Myndr. But I ask you. Shall we choose our livelihoods, or our lives?”

     @PrinceProspo waited for the murmuring to die down.

     “Two! I have also been informed that the virus only strikes a person when they are alone. Accordingly, no one is permitted to remain unaccompanied for any one second. Our proximity is our only defense. The lavatories have been adjusted accordingly...”

     The prince gestured to a corner of the hall that only held a napping cat. The guests looked confused. A servant quickly whispered in the hosts ear.

     “As you can see!” @PrinceProspo stammered, gesturing to the opposite end of the hall. Ten gilded toilet seats lined the wall, fully exposed to any onlooker. Groans of protest resounded against the surrounding walls.

     “Friends! I know this is not ideal. But it is what we must do if we hope to survive. Consider it...social consolidation.”

     @PrinceProspo made a slight gesture of his hand and the servants instantly filled everyone’s glasses with criminally high-proof alcohol.

     “And three!” He continued. “While we are riding out the devastation, we might as well enjoy ourselves.” His mouth contorted into a perverse grin. Raising a hand, he snapped his fingers and a parade of servants came into the banquet hall rolling carts piled high with every narcotic, opiate, psychedelic, personal intimacy device and other debaucherous item imaginable.

     “The third rule is that there are no other rules.”

     He raised his glass. His guests followed suit.

     “Let the revelry begin!”

 

     The festivities began civilized enough. Even as they consumed copious amounts of liquor and drugs, the guests politely looked away from the wall of the gilded toilets. As the days passed, however, the depravity grew as privacy degraded away. The revellers began to take pride in their outlandishness. They began to crave putting themselves on unforgiving display for all others to witness.

     All reservation crumbled into an orgy of altered biochemistry and available flesh. Any limits of human morality were shattered. A writhing mass of impersonal violence and selfish projection. All for one and one for all. The debauchery within the walls of @PrinceProspo’s compound stood in stark contrast to the catotonic masses rotting in place outside.

     By the third week (though none knew how long it had been), @PrinceProspo was growing bored. He wanted to strip away the last refuge of personal identity his guests held onto, to let them truly recreate themselves with utter disregard for self restraint. He had an idea. A masquerade. New faces would let his revellers act without reproach.

     And so it did. With a bounty of grotesque masks produced from a lower cellar, the party descended into unimpeded debauchery. Fountains of liquor merged with puddles of bodily fluids to create a stinking, squirming cesspool of pleasure and pain. 

     The chime of a Myndr notification rang in everyone’s heads.

     Silence. Stillness. All present stopped where they were. @PrinceProspo turned his head from side to side, unaware of the ghastly face of horror he wore beneath his upside-down mask. He screamed out.

     “No one open it!!”

     Silence permeated the great hall. Then, from one corner, a slight chuckle. It grew into a laugh. The whole room started to join along, until their laugh grew into an uproar of hilarity. It infused them with new energy, and they took up their interrupted activities with a greater vigor than before. Within minutes, it was all forgotten.

     An hour passed. Hidden behind their masks, the revellers exposed every monster and beast they held inside. A few prostrate bodies had been dragged into the corner by the toilets.

     Then it sounded again. The chime.

     Everyone stood and looked about them. A servant helped @PrinceProspo to his feet. He panted with exasperation.

     “No...one...open it.”

     A scream split the air in the midst of the crowd. It evolved into gasps of shock. The revellers backed away, leaving a lone, masked figure standing at the center.

     @PrinceProspo stretched out his hands helplessly. 

     “What is it?!”

     A voice trembled from behind the facade of a snarling lion.

     “It’s...it’s him. It’s the split red mask!”

     Cold sweat ran down the neck of @PrinceProspo. He whispered to his servant, who subtlety guided him towards the isolated figure. Face to face with the creature, @PrinceProspo brought his quivering hands up to the mask. He felt the upturned smile of the left side descend into the foul frown on the right. The crescent moon shapes of the eyes. Rage began to make his whole body shake.

     “How dare you...how dare you!”

     With both hands, @PrinceProspo ripped the mask from the face before him. There was screaming. Clambering. Desperate gasps.

     Stillness.

     @PrinceProspo turned frenetically from side to side, still holding the mask in his hands.

     “Friends? Friends?!”

     He felt about for a human companion. They were all there. He touched them. Shook them. Punched and pushed and kicked them.

     “Friends!”

     Silence. 

     He stumbled about the hall, bumping into the unmoving bodies standing all around, his whimpers echoing against the rancid walls of the great chamber. The sorrowful emotion @PrinceProspo felt was profound. And utterly, embarrassingly private.

     A chime sounded within @PrinceProspo’s head.