It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.
It was an impulse buy. Sandy had given up on those sort of gimmicks a long time ago. Once or twice a year self-loathing would goad her into a calorie-controlled diet, but lack of visible results and the impossibility of coping with work while feeling hungry all the time meant she could never stick at it for long. As for miracle weight loss products, fad diets, and programmes, she had long since stopped paying attention.
It was the woman on the box that did it. She looked so genuinely happy. Sandy couldn't remember the last time she had seen anyone - in real life, on TV, or one of the perfect people plastered over every available advertising surface - who looked so utterly content and authentic in their consumer ecstasy. And it was on special. Half price. 'Choose happiness!' it said in friendly letters underneath the woman's picture. 'If only' muttered Sandy sadly to herself, and without really thinking put the package of meal-replacement drinks in her trolley. It was a brand she had never seen before.
I don't blame Sandy. If it wasn't Sandy, it would have been somebody else. Or if no one had ever bought it, They would have found some other way.
The next day was Monday. Sandy came home from work with her gut tied in knots from what Tamika had said and slumped on the couch watching impossibly fit young people play tennis. She hated tennis but couldn't get up the energy to change the channel. She couldn't face making a proper dinner either, so she got one of the meal-replacement drinks. It was the sort of fine powder that gets everywhere no matter how carefully you try to open the packet, and that takes forever to stir to get rid of the lumps. She hardly tasted it at all. And it didn't make her feel like the woman in the picture.
At least, not until the next morning.
When the alarm went off, Sandy realised her bedroom was beautiful. In the pre-dawn, the contours of the junk on the bedside table looked like the towers of an alien city at sunrise, gleaming with mysterious potential. The fragment of poetry 'rose-red city half as old as time', which she had once seen on a poster in a travel agent's window, flamed into her thoughts. Then a vision of one of the cities in Ray Bradbury's 'Martian Chronicles', which she had read as a teenager, and a brief unbearable tang of bittersweet affection for the doomed Martians. She swung herself out of bed. The knot of despair in her gut was gone. She felt no dread of the put-downs and petty nastinesses she was sure to face at work. She felt good. The heavy pall of self-loathing that had hung over her constantly since she was fourteen years old was gone.
It was another rubbish day at work. Tamika and Marcella were even more vicious than usual. But today Sandy didn't seem to mind. Life was beautiful. She was happy. Instead of ending up weeping in the loo at lunchtime, she sat in the tearoom and looked out at the sunlight playing on the windswept leaves of the trees by the carpark. She had never noticed before how beautiful it all was. It wasn't until then that she thought just how strange it was that she felt so happy.
'If this is because of that stuff I had last night, there's no way it can be legal. This is crazy.' A mental image of a box labelled 'Uncle Arthur Conan Doyle's Heroin-Infused Bran Flakes' came to her, and she giggled. A voice - it sounded like Darren - said something that could only have been 'crazy fat bitch' from the other side of the room, and Sandy only felt a pang of bittersweet affection for him, like he was one of the doomed Martians.
That night she had The Dream.
She was walking with the woman from the package. Or flying, in that way dreams sometimes blur two things together that could never really be blurred together. In the same way the woman from the box was covered with tiny little kingfisher-blue feathers - or not - in the same ambiguous dream fashion.
'This is how you are meant to feel' the woman said. 'This is how people should be. How you felt before was a wrongness. A disease.'
'I get that' said Sandy. She had the sense that she and the woman were not alone, that there were more of the kingfisher-blue people walking or flying nearby, hundreds or thousands or millions of them.
'Would you like to feel like this forever?' asked the woman.
'Oh yeah' said Sandy. 'Oh yeah.'
Sandy stayed happy. Life stayed beautiful. At work, she found she could just smile sweetly at people who would have left her a sullen mass of self-hatred the week before.
By Friday morning, everything she tried on was too loose. She started weighing herself again and found she was rapidly losing weight. Not rapidly enough to be frightening - to be, for instance, another symptom of a brain cancer that was also causing her strange euphoria - just nice. It was like the celebrities in the magazines whose 'baby bodies' miraculously melt away without leaving any dangling wattles of skin.
'If I feel sick - at all - I'll go to the doctor' she promised herself. 'There can't be anything wrong with me if I feel fine.'
Day by day she effortlessly shrank towards the socially most acceptable body shape for a woman of her age.
Two weeks after The Dream Sandy swam up out of sleep an hour before dawn. Her skin was tingling, trembling for joy, like the skin of women in soap commercials. Through her sleep-blurred eyes she saw that her arm was shiny. Opalescent. A little like kingfisher feathers. Startled, she moved her arm, and the shininess on it took flight, a cloud of little dancing motes. They scattered in the air and faded, leaving only the faintest sheen remaining on her arm. She got out of bed, her heart pounding hard. They were streaming off her everywhere like solar flares, more slowly than the initial flight from her arm, in long coiling patterns of wilful smoke that seemed to make their own way toward the door. It was terrifying, but beautiful. The tingling in her skin stopped, the last motes faded, and she wasn't shiny any more.
'I should see the doctor' Sandy said to herself. 'I must be going crazy.'
But when she had finished breakfast she had changed her mind to: 'If I have any more weird hallucinations like that, then I'm going to see the doctor.'
By that time, although no-one had realised it, there was already a Scanning Electron Micrograph of one of the motes, taken two days before by a palynologist at Victoria University. It was a faceted ellipsoid, with three axes of length approximately 21.3, 13.2, and 8.1 microns. The same objects had also been seen in semen samples from the stud ram 'Wairarapa Roger', which meant they had to be thrown away, and - in vast numbers - in the blood of a Miss Allanah Sanderson, whose childhood leukaemia had suddenly gone into remission. Some of the objects from Miss Sanderson's blood sample were sent for further analysis, but by the time the results came back, events had moved on.
Forty-five minutes after Sandy got to work that day, the first social media exchange between two people who had dreamed slightly different versions of The Dream took place. I didn't notice it until I woke up - 6:18 pm New Zealand time - by which time it was all over the internet. And I didn't decide that the only hope for humanity was to nuke New Zealand for another two hours. But even if I had been Emperor of Earth, it probably wouldn't have worked. Those things were drifting in the ocean by then. Carried on planes to places all over the world. Burrowing deep in the subsoil.
That afternoon The Dream had come up in the tearoom at Sandy's work. Afternoon tea ended with a group hug.
That was a week ago. The only other people I know who rejected The Dream are my friend James, who is aspergers, and the Pakistani couple that run the Asian music store on Hollins Road. Even after They issued Their statement, making it perfectly clear what Their plans were, and letting people know they were free to change their minds whatever they chose, 998 out of a thousand people have chosen happiness. The last time I checked Their manifesto had 870 million 'Likes'.
You get to live forever. You get to fulfill your potential to be happy all the time. The only downside is that your real flesh and blood body gets replaced by a community of free-willed nanites - all immortal, all happy like you, all happy to be your friends and help you out. They mimic the body you had before, except you never get sick. Or, you can change it. If you ask nicely, They'll give you wings. Or gills. Or any kind of frigging superpower compatible with the laws of physics. They've converted most of the soil into Themselves. They're working Their way down into the crust, rearranging it into a different kind of sentient happy nanite. Animals and plants - anything without free will - They're replacing those too. Abolishing suffering. No more tortured mice. No more caterpillars writhing with ichneumon wasp larvae in their guts. What's not to like? But I don't like it.
They've promised to keep enough of the old ecosystem going to provide all the necessities of life for Luddites like me and James as long as we live. But They already outnumber us quintillions to one. God knows what Their plans for the planet are after we're gone.
I just watched the video of Sandy telling her story for the ninth time. I can't help myself. She looks so happy. She looks so beautiful. Damn. Damn. Damn.
1. There are doubtless more prosaic ways to successfully mount a Grey Goo invasion, of course. This one has not just been invented for novelty value, but as a solution to some potential problems that might arise for the invaders in a world subject to real world physics.
In the real world, space is full of violent cosmic rays and any journeys between stars will take a very long time, so any object carrying the nanites from somewhere else will need to be well shielded, and hence relatively large - I am thinking at least the size of a beach ball - but not so large as to make a big obvious fuss coming down. It makes sense to me for this thing to get down to Earth's surface in one go, instead of dispatching tiny probes from its limited resources to brave the atmosphere individually.
Now, this beach ball contains some billions of sentient beings. They won't follow a prearranged plan, but work out things as they go along based on all the information they collect from us as they approach our planet. They will want to be careful to kickstart their propagation as quickly as possible, to avoid the chance of being noticed by these curious ape-descended creatures and possibly being nipped in the bud. And I think something they would be quite likely to do, given their initially limited resources and desire for speed, is to hijack an efficient terrestrial system for gathering energy and matter and replicating complex structures - i.e., something alive - rather than rolling out their own systems. There is no reason this would be particularly easy, no matter how advanced their science. They need to get a lot of information into a living organism; certainly quite a few of their people - maybe some highly specialised sorts of nanites that a lot of work has gone into; and it is quite likely that they might need significant amounts of some trace elements not common in Earth - in the initial stage of rapid propagation, when they control few living systems, these would be a limiting factor on their growth and it would make sense to supply a bolus of them to the initial host for distribution through the first several generations. The nanites have few resources at this narrow window in time: they are psychologically conditioned to scarcity from thousands of years of living in a beach ball. So they won't scatter a lot of baits around willy-nilly where most of them will be wasted and they might be picked up by curious ape-descended scientists. No, I think it makes good sense for them to minimise waste by putting a lot of effort into one really good bait, designed for the biochemistry of a particular species. And if their study of our electronic traffic suggests a way that they can ensure self-selection of an individual member of that species who can easily afford the excess metabolic load, and who will be pleasantly surprised rather than freaked out if they suddenly lose a lot of mass... ? What's not to like?
2. The story is actually set in New Zealand because I thought of the idea when I happened to be there some years ago. Of course, a beach-ball-sized meteorite is large enough to be interesting, so landing in a remote bit of deep ocean before heading to the nearest supermarket is a sensible strategy, which would make New Zealand a more likely starting place than most.
3. As I was writing, I was thinking of the 'I' in the story as a male Anglo in his early 20s, geeky not nerdy, named 'Luke' and living in Oldham in the UK. But you can feel free to imagine him/her as being whoever you like, living in any English-speaking country in that approximate time zone.