BY ALEXANDER WEINSTEIN
The first to stumble across the new lifeforms weren’t NASA scientists or marine biologists, but a group of teenage gamers who posted their findings on GameShare. Their retweeted video arrived on our phones looking like classic clickbait but soon circulated every social media feed until even news stations were replaying the clip. We watched the recording and listened to the young boys’ voices.
Any of you see that?
Right side, past the cliff.
Got it. All zombies dead.
No, past the zombies—like on the side of the cliff.
Whoa. What the hell?
I don’t know.
Is that part of the game?
I don’t think so.
Newscasters enlarged the image, and there it was, climbing through a rip in the fabric of the immersive game, as real as any living creature we’d ever seen. Its mouth snapped at the air and the pixels around its body flickered with the prism of deep programming glitches. Yet, in interview after interview, programmers reported this wasn’t an elaborate Easter egg, nor a technological prank or some cybernetic stunt. “We don’t know what that thing is,” they said, looking pale. It sure didn’t seem like they were lying.
Our own first encounters were in online offices, eClassrooms, and immersive yoga studios. “Breathe in,” our teacher instructed. We inhaled, stretched our arms above our heads, listened to our avatar yogini. Indian fusion played in our ears, the sound of a sitar and tabla layered over a slow ebbing bass line, and we lowered ourselves onto the bamboo floor in the golden light of morning. Sunlight broke through the muslin curtains and something shimmered in the air, creating small waves in our vision. We readjusted our headsets, wondering if our system was glitching, but the console seemed fine.
“Stretch into downward dog,” our teacher said, but we kept our eyes on the place where the room was pushing outward until, as though the studio was made of fabric, the air tore open and we gazed into the inky starriness speckled with planets, wondering if this was enlightenment.
Then an enormous green leg with small hairs and a chitinous shell pushed through the rip and stepped onto the bamboo floor. Another leg appeared, followed by a colossal mantis head which tore through the top of the gash. The creature’s eyes were the size of dinner plates, and its segmented mouth emitted a series of high-pitched clicks as it examined us. We fled from our yoga mats and ran toward the studio doors. Then, remembering we were online, we pulled the headsets from our eyes, and stood terrified in the safety of our home offices, our IR consoles whirring quietly as we recalled how the creature had looked. It was almost as if it had been the frightened one.
We assumed the creatures were nothing more than well-developed pranks, the kind of spam dreamed up by the technologically savvy to wreak havoc on our immersive worlds. And soon we received emailed apologies from our content providers confirming our assumptions. Everything, they assured us, was under control; the best of their IT departments were handling the glitches. For a couple of hours, a day at most, our movie streaming services, online games, and immersive environments would be shut down so they could find the virus and deprogram the bugs which were appearing across our landscapes.
Those of us attempting to log into meditation classes found SITE NOT AVAILABLE illuminated against the inside of our goggles. Our children, who’d paid for upgrades of cars and weapons, discovered blank screens. College classrooms were gone, as were our day-care centers and gyms. There was nothing but the darkness of our goggles and the blinking lights of our consoles.
That evening we listened to public statements from the CEOs of major immersive corporations. They were still establishing attribution for the massive cyberattack, which as far as anyone could see had compromised every platform across the globe. As they tackled this major breach, we were not to reconnect or attempt to delete the bugs on our own. They’d find the hackers, they promised us.
But when our systems remained inoperative for over twenty-four hours, we turned to the blog posts emerging from Silicon Valley. The companies, it was rumored, had hired white hat hackers, who’d reached out to black hat hackers, who’d turned to the most nefarious code-crackers on the dark web for help. What was going on, we wanted to know. When, we demanded, would our access be restored? And what were those creatures? RATs, worms, Trojan horses? Were the mantids a zombie army of bots, infecting our machines and using our consoles to do some evil hacker’s bidding? Yet none of our guesses rang true. For if the glitches had been ransomware, where were the requests for our money? And if they were adware, why hadn’t the creatures tried to sell us anything?
The Blossom Files
It was then that the black hat hacker known as Scott Blossom appeared. He leaked the internal memos of the largest corporations and shared the data mining done by their hired code-crackers. The companies, he told us, had gotten so desperate they’d reached out to third-world scammers, bitcoin miners, and dark-net thieves. All the while, their meticulously designed landscapes were being ruined by the presence of the insects. Here were images of giant grasshoppers amid Sega’s Indy 500 games and enormous praying mantises materializing in immersive gyms. And then, Blossom revealed the truth: the bugs were extraterrestrials trapped within our immersive worlds—the most real thing in our unreal realities—and though the insects could interact with our coding, there were no traces of them in the programming, no data whatsoever.
The thrill of extraterrestrials filled us with nervous excitement. What planet had they come from? Were we in life-threatening danger? What intergalactic message would they deliver? Amid our questions hung a shadow of guilt. We recalled the conference rooms where we’d hurled office chairs at them, the online birthday parties where we’d grabbed our children, the college campuses where the creatures had clattered into the classroom, clumsy as horses. We’d flung scalding coffee at them and tried to cripple the bugs with our yoga mats, though they’d done nothing more than place their front legs on our conference tables, their large antennae frantically flickering as they suffered the digital objects we’d hurled at them.
We wanted to see the creatures again. Our providers had no right to deny us service. This miraculous event wasn’t their discovery to keep. We flooded phone lines and filled in-boxes. The most politically active surrounded corporate offices with signs and bullhorns. And finally, the CEO of a Buddhist meditation module relented. He sent out an email extolling the ethos of an open web and reopened his immersive monastery. Soon other start-ups followed, then gaming companies, then Google, then Apple, and finally our connections flickered back to life and protesters returned home to place their goggles over their eyes.
The wounded creatures were still cowering in our restaurants and conference rooms, and we approached them cautiously. Wasn’t it true that after mating female mantises ripped the heads off their partners? Couldn’t they crush spines as easily as they did exoskeletons? We worried they’d seize us in their front legs and stare at us with their compound eyes before tearing off our heads. But the creatures were no more dangerous than butterflies trapped in a glass, and as we gathered around them, they only stared at us, as if trying to determine whether we meant them harm.
Tasha Cozhani’s piece first appeared in The New York Times and later in our social media feeds, expanded upon thereafter by a thousand bloggers, corroborated by hundreds of scientists, and finally, voiced by one or two of our politicians. Cozhani was a professor of entomology at Cornell’s immersive campus. She studied grasshoppers, aphids, and mantises, understood their migratory patterns, knew how their congregations acted when threatened. These creatures, she wrote, weren’t the same as our own insects, though there were clear parallels. For one, instinctual reactions when traumatized. She referenced heart rates, swollen abdomens, ovipositor dysfunction. Immersive reality, Cozhani speculated, had been the intergalactic architecture through which we’d extended our communication tower, and our signal had been picked up. These creatures weren’t coming to attack us, nor to invade or destroy; they were arriving at our invitation to seek sanctuary.
A group of entomologists from Prague corroborated Cozhani’s theory, pointing to lacerations on wings, broken tibial spines, and cracked raptorial appendages. Not only were the insects highly intelligent but their intent was in no way malevolent. The creatures had been mistreated, they said, and seemed to have escaped from their own world to seek refuge in ours. They weren’t hostile, nor were they the Antichrist as our religious leaders claimed; they’d simply arrived to our shores seeking something better.
“Delusional” was what AM talk-show hosts called Cozhani’s theories. These insects were highly dangerous—keepers of decay, squirming with neurotoxins and poisonous mandibles. Their bodies hid viruses that would corrupt our landscapes. An invasion of bugs destroying immersive reality was simply the start of a larger migration.
World leaders were in a panic. Already, more insects were appearing upon our virtual shores, floating through torn portals like boats emerging from fog. But what was their message? They arrived with neither greetings of peace nor threats of war. They merely stood in our IR environments, their heads reaching the ceilings of our offices, staring at us with their silvery eyes as they chirped indecipherably. And soon we found ourselves in one of two camps: those who’d fed ants sugar crystals and watched them build tunnels in glass terrariums, and those who’d held magnifying glasses over their backs to watch them curl and incinerate under the sun’s concentrated ray.
A Victoria’s Secret store closed when two massive grasshoppers appeared, pushing racks aside as they clattered through the aisles. A Carnival cruise had to refund payments when one of their immersive ocean liners became home to a dozen escaping mantids. A group of toddlers were terrified by a gigantic bleeding grasshopper that had appeared in their day-care center. And, finally, an Alabama county clerk named Frannie Sheffield had an anxiety attack when a praying mantis appeared at the office’s immersive picnic. Her round face was broadcast on all the channels as she lay in her hospital bed, voicing the request of an increasing number of Americans. “Squash them,” she said to the cameras.
It was a phrase soon chanted by others. They emerged in our communities with signs and T-shirts. “Squash them,” they chanted outside the corporate offices of our immersive-content providers. The Fraternal Order of Police issued a unified statement condemning the interstellar creatures. Religious leaders quoted Bible verses about pestilence, infestations, and blights, and conservative talk show hosts gave inaccurate history lessons on the boll weevil. “What we need to do,” a Georgia senator said, “is put up a firewall so powerful it’ll roast those crickets.” And finally, an immersive-home owner in Pendleton, Oregon, loaded a virtual shotgun and opened fire on the mantis that had emerged on the front lawn of his online home. We saw his face on the news stations the next day, the carcass of the creature behind him. “If the corporations aren’t going to keep us safe,” he said, “it’s up to us to defend ourselves.”
The Official Response
The president appeared on our smartphones, and we took off our IR goggles and gathered to hear him. America, he announced, was under attack. The immersives had precipitated a national crisis that threatened our cities, our homes, and our way of life. Despite the claims of liberal media outlets, these creatures weren’t docile or here in peace. These bugs were intergalactic predators opening the doors of our immersive worlds in advance of even more horrific insects, and their appearance in our digital world was nothing more than a prelude to their invasion of our real one.
And yet, the president’s fears didn’t match reality. No giant mantises were emerging in our actual midst, nor were the creatures a danger to our children. They poked their heads peacefully into our infants’ Sesame Street tutorials. Alongside Big Bird there now squatted an enormous grasshopper, and our immersive dance studios were becoming home to injured arrivals who wanted nothing more than food and water.
But the president had issued his executive order. A new immersive military was being formed. Online forces were ready to stop any creatures who attempted to crash our virtual borders. He praised the Pendleton shooter and urged our teenagers to turn their tanks from the war-torn landscapes of their video games toward the horizons which were dotted with insects. Blast the creatures with mortar shots, he said; use whatever resources you have to fight the aliens online. Then, facing the camera, he spoke the words we’d hoped never to hear.
“We are at war.”
The First Days of War
When we logged back on, we found our offices and universities swarming with white trucks and avatars in hazmat suits wrangling insects into refrigerated HGVs. A large van screeched to a halt in front of our yoga class and armed soldiers descended upon the mantis with projectile nets. The creature’s thin antennae beat against the mesh, and it looked at us with its large black eyes. It raised its wings, frantically opening and closing them against the nets until we heard something crack.
“Stop!” we yelled. But the men, being men, didn’t listen. They bashed us with nightsticks and corralled us into corners. They shot the creature with tranquilizers and pulled it across the pavement into their trucks. We stood on the stained bamboo floor, watching the vans disappear into some dark-web site where we couldn’t follow. None of us felt like meditating anymore.
How many of them died in those early days, no one knows for sure. We demanded to know where the insects were being taken, but the president remained silent. Scott Blossom, who’d sought political asylum in Norway, leaked a video of cramped cages in an immersive detention center, the creatures mashed together within the wire pens as our president waged his war against the cosmos.
A group of black hat hackers arose in rebellion, programming temporary firewalls of safety which the government frantically sought to crash. The revolutionaries appeared on our screens with insect masks and a video of the enormous mantises they’d kept sheltered from the roaming feds. “We’re creating a worldwide network of sanctuary sites,” they announced. They spoke of encrypted warehouses hidden deep within the inner cities of our children’s sandbox games, and of global protectorates scattered across the mountaintops of our skiing modules. It was up to us—hackers and everyday citizens—to hide and protect the creatures.
Those of us who’d never played video games, now lowered our goggles and sat with our ears cradled in headsets as we fought our government, faced firing squads, and respawned to fight again. Among the new heroes were shop owners and schoolteachers, pastors and firemen, mothers and fathers who hid grasshoppers in the basements of their online homes and offered sanctuary within immersive churches and monasteries.
In response, we were bombarded by more invective from the White House, praising the gamers who were amassing insect casualties, and extolling the virtues of the president’s militiamen who were squashing the intruders online. As for the traitors who would protect them, the president announced he was sending real troops to kick in the doors of the Silicon Valley offices that housed the black hat anarchists. His hackers were already breaking through our firewalls; they were coming for our sanctuary sites.
We attempted to herd the creatures back through the virtual rifts, but like crickets jumping away from an open door they refused to leave, resisting as if fighting death itself. In the end, we watched them turn instead toward the open borders of our immersive worlds, where they cocked their heads, listening to the sound of the approaching tanks.
It was then that the creatures began to sing. The mantises, whose legs our doctors had mended, lifted their wings and rubbed them together, and their melodies rose above the gunfire with the sound of crickets on a summer evening. Their music reverberated across the rooftops of our blasted landscapes and set meditation bowls ringing, filling our bodies with a soft vibration that tasted like honey to our eardrums.
For a moment, we were awestruck by the beauty of their songs, which sounded almost like prayer. The citizens’ brigades stopped marching, the dark-hearted gamers lowered their machine guns, and the tank operators idled in their war machines. Even those who at this late stage were still attempting to ignore the war and go shopping, paused and listened. The songs were beautiful, and for a moment we felt like children drawn to the glow of fireflies. The creatures’ stridulations echoed from our sanctuary sites, a wave of exquisite music that was also a homing beacon to their hiding places. We tried to silence the creatures, but they just looked at us with their compound eyes and continued their melodies. Then, just as quickly as it had arisen, the spell was broken. The military trucks began to move again, the citizens began to march, the gunmen raised their controllers, and we finally understood a truth. Our visitors didn’t need to destroy us—we were doing that ourselves—and the distance they’d traveled was far less than the gulf between us and our neighbors now. Had we had more time, perhaps we could have learned their languages, translated their songs, understood the reasons they were here. But the tanks were already arriving. So we lifted our controllers and faced our fellow humans.