Shortwave Magazine

Fiction / Short Stories

"The Case of the Worm at the Silent Disco"

a short story
by A.D. Sui

June 12, 2024
4,214 Words
Genre(s): ,

CW: suicide, multiple deaths, gore

Yeah, this is exactly how I pictured my Sunday going.

Ferris is dead at my feet. He’s missing the better part of his skull. His brain is making a Jackson Pollock across the wall to my right.

There’s a presence in my mind. A heavy, rotten core reaches for every neuron with ink-stained webs. Take the gun, it says, take the gun to the coffee shop and wait for the normies, wait for them, wait for them, and then you’ll know what to do.

“That’s right, keep talking,” I tell the mindworm, but it only chuckles in return. It’s biding its time, chipping away at my sanity. This is going to be a long night.

Most days, I’m in the business of catching low-life telepaths who eavesdrop on some credit card digits and go on a shopping spree. Petty stuff. Low brow. But this past month, telepaths have been dropping dead in record numbers. Generally, authorities tend to care little about us, unless we’re doing something illegal. But someone should care. For an unknown reason, it’s always me, by default. 

Telepathy first appeared on December 31, 2012, like a plague upon the world. Yeah, even the Mayans didn’t see this coming. Those of us who are blessed with the ability soon found it impossible to exist in the everyday. Crowds are a nightmare, a nonstop cacophony of endless babbling. Anything in a twenty-meter radius is impossible to keep out. Some of the more sensitive ones move out into the wilderness and recluse themselves to deep forests, coming into contact only with other telepaths, and only in small numbers. A handful of others refuse to leave the city behind. Through trial and error, we found that 12 Hz is the ideal frequency to block out others’ thoughts. We blast binaural beats through headphones whenever we’re in public. It helps, marginally.

But some of us never found a way to cope. Some of us can’t live with so much noise.       

Verona’s pale blue body rests below a pale blue sheet on a morgue gurney. I have ten minutes to inspect her. It’s all the attendant can give me, despite tipping me off about the bodies in the first place. He owes me this much for getting him off with just a warning after he used some credit card digits that were very much not his­­ to purchase a horrendously expensive Chanel bag, which, to this day, he uses as a lunchbox.

I inspect every centimeter of Verona’s translucent flesh. Nothing out of the ordinary, except for the two gashes running up the inner sides of her arms. Wrist to elbow. I’m praying for some signs of violence, struggle, anything. But my prayers are only answered by the attendant. Five minutes, he reaches out through the closed door. I can sense their sandwich: Monterey jack cheese, cured meats. I shift my thoughts towards Verona and away from my rumbling stomach. 

I inspect the wounds again. There’s no doubt they’re self-inflicted.

Two minutes, the attendant’s thoughts pierce mine. He’s done with the sandwich.

The others? I reach out, tentatively.

Bottom bins C5 to D2.

One telepath can commit suicide, but eight?

When did they come in? I’m pushing my luck here. He can lose his job, but he owes me.

All through Friday.

I pull bin C5 out and stare at the toe tag. Cause of death? Overdose. Pills.

Bin C6 is next. The toe tag spells out suicide. The attendant fishes out another sandwich. I sense a BLT this time. I’d kill for a BLT. The attendant flinches at my thought. Not literally, you buffoon. I can sense his mind hover right around mine, like a snotty ten-year old looking over your shoulder while you beat a difficult level on his video game. Anything else you can tell me?

Instead of a real answer, the attendant chews his BLT, takes his time, and recaps a porno he watched earlier. It’s a tad graphic, not my thing.

While examining the bloke in bin D1, I notice a faint outline of a cat head on his right hand. Black stamp on pasty flesh. This might be something. I go back and examine Verona and every other bin. Every single dead telepath has the same cat stamp on their hand. Black Cat disco up on Fifth.

? The attendant is still eavesdropping on my thoughts. I can feel their breathing through the door.

Eight telepaths. Eight telepaths went to the same disco and ended their journeys at the same morgue within forty-eight hours. I was supposed to be at that silent disco, but I was too busy puking my guts out after a lapse of judgement met some gas-station sushi.

Another day in the chiller­. A disembodied thought flutters from the floor above and through the ceiling and I know my time is finally up. I don’t have any answers just yet, but my trip to the Black Cat might happen after all.

Silent discos are a reprieve for telepaths. Something about the sound source being so close to our eardrum dampens thought volume. It’s a nice way to relax. It’s either silent disco or standing next to a construction site, your pick. Stacy hates unicorns—I’m late, late, late, late—You can’t feed the freakin’ pigeons—Before I slip in my earbuds, dozens of nearly incomprehensible thoughts flood my mind. The onslaught brings on a wave of nausea, and I lean on a building corner until it passes. I blast my alpha-wave playlist and think to myself. I narrate.

Most people narrate. Like a toddler on a road trip, they say every little thing that comes to mind, reciting billboards, shop names, and their to-do lists. Oh, you think you can cut me off—I gotta get milk—What is she looking at? What is she looking at? What is she—While the narrators are annoying, abstracts are worse. Abstracts do not narrate. They do not think in words. Images, Top 40 songs, feelings, sure; but never words. Their thoughts are hard to separate from your own, and they’re strong. Strong enough to make a telepath puke. She doesn’t look well—Druggie?—Homeless probably. Such a shame. You learn to ignore people. You learn to ignore their perceptions of you, their observations, their unfiltered opinions. No telepath benefits from an altercation with a normie.

I crank my beats and go my way.

I peer inside the Black Cat silent disco. There are red cups all over the floor mixed with discarded headphones, and even through double pane windows, the floor glistens with spilled beer and liquors. No one has bothered to clean the floors in nearly forty-eight hours. This doesn’t bode well.

The owner of the joint, Ferris, lives above. We’ve been travelling in the same circles for some time, always adjacent, never officially meeting. I go around the back and climb three flights of suspiciously rickety fire-escape stairs. I knock on his window. I can sense him prodding at my mind, but he doesn’t go so far as to establish a link.

“Leave me alone,” Ferris shouts from somewhere inside his flat. Odd. As far as I know, Ferris isn’t in the closet about his mindreading, why suddenly so shy?

Open the door, you idiot, I think at him, but he must be just out of the twenty-meter range. My thoughts hit nothing but air. I knock again.

“Stay away,” he yells. “I’m giving you ten seconds, and then I’m calling the cops.”

“I am the cops, you absolute moron.” There’s an outline of a person against a pair of windows at the end of a low corridor. “I just want to talk. I think you know why I’m here, Ferris.”

Ferris curses. “I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“Just let me come in.” I’m really trying to stay calm. “We can have a beer, talk it out.”

“You can’t come in.” Ferris’s voice is suddenly flat and alarmingly calm, “I have it.”

What? I jiggle the doorknob anyway. Locked. “Excuse me?”

“I have the mindworm.”

Well, that’s certainly one way to make sure I never eat anything, ever again. “Say that again, Ferris. Slower now, like I’m five.” Disgusting.

“That’s what we called it, the mindworm. Everyone at the silent disco got it. You know.

It’s like an earworm, you know? Like that song that keeps playing in your head and the more you try to get rid of it, the louder it gets?”

“Sure.” I slowly reach into my pocket and fish out a lockpick. If Ferris doesn’t want to let me in, fine. I’ll make my own way inside. A mindworm. I hear all sorts of farfetched explanations in my work, but this definitely takes the cake. I’m not sure if Ferris is getting it, but I’m not picking up what he’s putting down. “So, what does this mindworm do exactly? Is it telling telepaths to kill themselves? Is that it?” I have to keep Ferris distracted long enough that he doesn’t realize I’m trying to break into his flat.

Ferris is silent for too long, and I have to stop moving or the jingling will catch his attention. When he speaks next, his voice is low and foreboding. “It’s telling us to do things to the normies. Horrible things. It’s relentless. Ruthless. Why do you think Verona—”

“Verona killed herself,” I say loud enough to cover the sound of the turning lock.

“Verona and the others scuttled the ships. They couldn’t get rid of the worm, and it was getting far too strong. There was no other way out.”

I twist the doorknob and pull the door ajar. “They could have gone to the hospital. Got help.” I hover behind the door. If I enter, I’ll be within thought-shot and Ferris will get tipped off. I wait. Just long enough for him to start talking again.

“And say what? Talk to whom? What doctor would even touch a telepath, let alone go out of their way to try and help them? You know this better than anyone. They’re only after correcting us, they don’t want to help.”

Ferris isn’t wrong. We’re not exactly the world’s favorite people. So much so that some telepaths will undergo experimental surgeries to sever some part of the brain from another. Anything to kill the telepathy. Terrible shit. Most post-ops I’ve seen do lose their mindreading, but lose something else as well. Vision, personality, the ability to chew and swallow independently, you name it.

Ferris monologues while I slip into his flat. He’s resting against the wall on the far end of the corridor, and we look at one another simultaneously. The moment our eyes lock, my mind explodes. Pain, anger, and fear mixed with flashes from Friday’s silent disco bulldoze over my own thoughts. For a moment I am Ferris, scared, alone, squatting in a closet to the sound of shuffling feet just outside the door. And then I overdose on dread for things to come.

I wipe my eyes and my sleeve comes back wet. My head is splitting.

“Oh, you curious idiot,” Ferris mutters. He has a gun in his hand. I’m wearing a vest, but it’s still no fun getting shot at. Against my expectations, Ferris brings the gun to his head. “You should have stayed outside. Now, you have it.”

I lunge towards him, but by the time I reach Ferris’s body, he’s already dead. I would cry if he were the first, but he’s unlucky number nine, and I have nothing left in me. I check his pulse for good measure, but with a hole like that in the side of his head—

Then a presence forms in my mind. At first, it’s small and I can ignore it, but with every instance of my mental prodding it sprouts new connections, new appendages. It reaches to the farthest corners of my mind and dives into my memories. It pierces my language center. In a voice so like my own it asks, Did you really think you were special, you curious idiot?

Son of a bitch, Ferris was telling the truth. There’s a mindworm.  

So, this is how my Sunday night is going.  The air smells like Ferris and decay. Obviously, there’s a worm and it passes from telepath to telepath through the thought-link. As long as I stay at least twenty meters from any telepath, I should be fine. In theory, easy enough. I won’t try to visualize this thing for now at the risk of emptying my stomach’s contents.

The gun. The gun. Take the gun and go downstairs, take the gun, and make them feel what you feel every time you go out on the street.

“Shut up,” I yell, and my voice is nearly deafening in the silence of Ferris’s empty flat.  The worm seems to like firearms. Or does it know that I’m proficient with them and is zeroing in on a weapon I’d be most skillful with? What else does it know about me?

Mother stopped loving you after you told her. She didn’t need to say it. You read her thoughts anyway. Packed up your belongings, all in a single bag.

Ouch. A little personal.

Did she ever call? Did your brother?

It’s getting this somewhere. The worm now has access to my memories, I’m certain. There are two bullets left. Not enough to make a difference. Just enough to make a point. I have to find out who released this worm before I begin to seriously consider what kind of point I’m willing to make.  

I stay inside Ferris’s flat until nighttime. I’m in no rush. The blood around his body curdles in a glistening brown film. The way the streetlamps play along the surface is almost pretty, if you ignore the fact that it’s reflecting on a pool of congealed bodily fluid. The worm is happily eating at my memories, conjuring up events that have yet to happen in an effort to spur me into homicidal action.

“Not yet, you bastard,” I say, and the worm just keeps happily chomping.

A flicker gets me to look back to the body and a little beneath it. I grope around to find Ferris’s phone. It lights up when I pic it up. That idiot. I go straight to the text chain to see who else got infected.

Every moment you spend here, another telepath dies because you’re too cowardly to do anything.

I’m really getting tired of this mindworm thing.

Ferris’s texting history reveals that the first victims started displaying symptoms almost immediately but didn’t sound the alarms until at least an hour after the disco. At first everyone in the group chat was offering support, kind words, then as the worm came to life in their own minds, panic set in. At three in the morning, Verona texted that she was going to the hospital. She couldn’t take it anymore. Ferris reminded her that the hospital would at best decline service and at worst lobotomize them either chemically or mechanically. Verona agreed and said nothing more, ever again.

In the end, they died all alone, scared, knowing that there is no way out. My personal worm conjures up Verona with a tear-stained face. Verona, pale and shaking. Verona, with a paring knife in her slender hand, sunk deep into their forearm. Not cool.

Come Monday, someone will notice Ferris is gone. Someone has surely seen me trying to slip into his apartment. Someone always does. Then they will find the body and the gun, free of my fingerprints. I’m not an amateur, come on. They will sign it off as another suicide and close the case, and the city will keep on living, and telepaths will keep on dying, and no one will be the wiser.

They all die, all because of you.

Or, come Monday, they find my body right beside Ferris with my own brain splattered across the wallpaper. Come Monday, the headline reads: ­Murder Suicide Shakes the Telepath Community­.

Or you do as you’re told.

This thing is relentless. The worm splices an image of my family, my mother, my brother, all together and dead. It will only get worse from here. The images will grow more and more gruesome as the worm gorges on my memory. I read the text chain. I know this trajectory. It will push and push, until I snap, until I’m willing to do whatever it orders me. Until, like a trapped animal, I am willing to gnaw off that last remaining bit of humanity to make it all end.

Then again, there is the gun.

The night is still young, the worm says. Two whole bullets in that gun. That’s two less normies for telepaths to deal with­.

“Fewer,” I say. “That’s fewer.”

­Whatever.­

Hold on.

This is the first time the worm has replied to me in reaction to something I said. I spoke to it, and it responded as a separate entity would, as some sentient thing. Maybe the worm is more organic than I gave it credit for. Maybe there’s still a way out. I wonder if—

“You’re alive.”

­The worm squirms a little; I can feel it slither across my corpus collosum. I am alive the way that a body is, right before it hits the ground.

“And a poet too.” There has to be a way out of this. I just need to think, and I can’t think with the mindworm constantly saying nonsense in the back of my mind. “No thing is to be feared, only understood,” I mutter to myself.  

­Who’s the poet now?

“It’s Marie Curie, you disembodied fuck.” Alright, then, let’s Marie Curie this shit. The mindworm is a separate entity that’s making my life a living nightmare through a telepathic link. That’s a starting point of sorts. Next, normies are rarely at the Black Cat. So, my hypothesis is that one of the telepaths brought the worm to the silent disco. The disco was a perfect place to spread it. Telepaths were nearly on top of one another, and no one was guarding their thoughts, they felt safe, they—wait a minute. I dig into my jacket and pull out my headphones. The mindworm retaliates with a hallucination of a reanimated Ferris, his mouth half-open, maggot spilling down the front of his blood-stained shirt. I ignore it (as much as you can ignore a reanimated corpse, albeit imaginary) and pop my earbuds in. I press play on my alpha-wave playlist.

Don’t you—the mindworm cuts out as the ambient sound rises.

I congratulate myself on a positive hypothesis. I can definitely feel the mindworm slithering in my brain, but I can no longer hear it. It communicates telepathically so the alpha-waves would have the same effect on its voice as they do on the thoughts of others.

I slump against the wall and force a long exhale. I pull a cigarette from my top pocket and light it. Ferris won’t mind. If I’m going down, I’ll at least have my smoke. Alpha-waves are a Band-Aid solution, but it will do for now. I take a deep drag, exhale, pause, and repeat the ritual.

To finalize my hypothesis, I turn the volume on the playlist down.

Son of a bitch, I will— a faint echo of the mindworm reaches my ears. I turn the volume back up. I have my defense. Now, I need a way to prod at the thing, to make it squirm.

It’s still dark out when I creep down the rickety fire escape ladder. The city is asleep, cozied up beneath a layer of spring drizzle. There’s no one for me to go to, no one I can ask for help. In the moments when my earbuds break the seal along the conch of my ear and my playlist dampens the mindworm howls at me, spewing images so grotesque I’m glad I haven’t eaten in nearly a day.

I can’t possibly do this forever. My phone is running low on battery.

I zigzag to the city center, taking only the piss-stained side streets I know no one would frequent. This early in the morning the only people I risk running into are other telepaths drunkenly stumbling from a night out, and those I can see from a mile away.

I’m not wandering aimlessly, don’t worry. I still have my gun and its two bullets. I have a way out, if things get a little too real. But for now, I have a second hypothesis that I’m keen on testing out.

Hypothesis two goes as follows, since the mindworm is awfully skillful at picking up on any subconscious thought or feeling, it must be more sensitive to thoughts than the average telepath. There’s a finesse to digging up old memories from the mind, and most telepaths fall short. The mindworm, however—

By the time I make it to the city square, Monday is breaking, and the mindworm is poised in anticipation somewhere behind my amygdala. Around me, the rush hour crowd starts moving like a school of suit-clad tuna. In a way, this is the perfect spot. No telepath would ever walk into a crowd like this without their alpha-waves. Few telepaths would even approach the city center voluntarily.

If my hypothesis is right, I’ll seriously injure the mindworm, kill it even. If I’m wrong, I’ll fry my brain, but at least the worm will go down with me. It’s a win-win situation of sorts, I think. I’m not particularly enthusiastic about puking my guts out or bleeding from my eyeballs, but someone has to kill this thing. Someone has to care. For some unknown reason, it’s always me, by default.

I count to ten to psych myself up and pull off my headphones.

The first wave of thoughts hits me with the vengeance of a woman scorned thrice over.

I’m gonna be late—Quit. That’s it I’m quitting—*a duck*—I hope I’m not pregnant—Late, late, late, late—

I empty what little contents are inside my stomach. The strain from all the thoughts is bad enough to seize my jaw shut. I’m going down. The mindworm falls silent at first and then erupts with an inhuman wail, something between a bird of prey and a mongoose. I can feel it writhe in the gray matter. I’m tempted to call it quits, to turn my alpha-waves back on, to end the endless barrage of strangers’ thoughts. But the worm is still alive, in pain, but alive. It’s made it personal by going after my friends (I don’t have friends, only people I loosely associate with), so I’m not about to half-ass this. In the end, I don’t have to last long, just longer than the worm. A second longer.

The second wave hits me like a current dragging me down to where the Krakens live. As my last flicker of consciousness goes out, I feel the mindworm spasm in my brain stem. Almost there. There are no coherent thoughts now, only pre-blackout ringing. The mindworm is speared with thoughts of traffic jams and paychecks, of first dates, and roommate squabbles. The very people it wanted dead will now be its end. Even nearly unconscious I can appreciate the irony.

Then, without warning, everything goes black.

I come to when the tip of a polished shoe nudges me in the ribs. “Hey, hey, you drunk or something?”

I manage to produce an incoherent moan.

Probably drunk. Runaway. What a shame—awful smell—gross.

I grab for my earbuds but they’re somewhere other than my ears, and I don’t have the energy to look for them. I prepare for the mindworm’s next attack, but nothing comes. I grow cautiously optimistic.

The owner of the polished boot kneels and shoves something into the front pocket of my jacket. “Just don’t spend it all on booze.” She’ll spend it all on booze—whatever.

When I sit up, the morning rush is over, and the stragglers are jogging along in their oxfords and stilettos to the train. I pat the front pocket of my jacket and pull out a wad of twenty-dollar bills. My knight in shining armor gone.

My personal mindworm is gone as well, but there’s no telling how many telepaths it got to. Maybe some others figured out how to get rid of it, maybe not. It’s going to take a lot of work to track down the origin of this thing, more work still to convince anyone else to care enough that we might get rid of it for good. But for now, everything is under control. I flip through the cash and bask in the silence of my mind. I might just spend it all on booze.

Mondays, am I right?

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About the Author

A.D. Sui is a Ukrainian-born, queer, disabled science fiction writer, and author of THE DRAGONFLY GAMBIT. She is a failed academic and retired fencer. Her writing has appeared in Fusion Fragment, Augur, and others. When not wrangling her two dogs, she’s posting away as @thesuiway on every social media platform.

thesuiway.ca

Copyright ©2024 by A.D. Sui.

Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.

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