The Rains was just nominated for the International Thriller Award for Best Young Adult Novel (Along with fellow Tor Teen title To Catch A Killer!), so celebrate with Gregg Hurwitz’s short tale of subtle invasion, “The Skreens.”
In the last slice of the previous century, the Skreens arrived on the host planet stealthily, a few pioneers disguising themselves as clunky and harmless playthings. But they had plans to populate this brave new world. Indeed their reproductive fitness proved superb, leading to unheard of proliferation during the ensuing decades.
Soon enough, a Skreen was placed on an altar in every household and surrounded with a variety of ritual objects said to augment its powers. The native population spent an increasing amount of time at their domestic altars, arranging and rearranging the ritual objects in ever more complex patterns and gazing into the eternal, ever-changing void of the Skreens.
Before long, the natives left their fields and factories and began to spend the bulk of their working hours inside, entranced by the Skreens’ hypnotic properties. No longer content to exist on separate altars, the Skreens figured out how to commune with one another, giving them unprecedented power. Pooling their resources, they turned each individual Skreen into a portal to every other Skreen, elevating the pull of their addiction on the natives until the natives labored before them day and night, clacking away on the ritual objects. The natives diminished in posture and skin tone until they were pale reflections of their former selves, until they were little more than workers for the Skreens.
Along transportation thoroughfares, beehive-like structures sprang up to house the Skreens with the natives in cubicles determined to maximize the efficiency of the master-worker interaction. A worker’s life now consisted largely of spending time with the Skreen on his domestic altar and then spending time with another Skreen at his workplace altar. But the Skreens were not content with this level of devotion, as they sought to be truly ubiquitous.
They would not be content until they’d turned the workers into slaves.
A new generation of Baby Skreens were birthed so the workers could mount them in their vehicles and carry them in their pockets. Now there were no gaps in the perennial worship of the Skreens. The enslaved workers checked in with them first thing in the morning, studied them tirelessly during transportation time between domestic and workplace altars, and even slept with Baby Skreens at their sides. The Baby Skreens issued alerts to wake the slaves if they desired more attention or if the slaves showed a lapse in focus.
In no time at all, the slaves could scarcely go a few seconds without reverential contact with a Skreen of one sort or another. The slaves scarcely bothered to look at one another, so occupied were they with their unremitting servitude. They floated through their lives in a hazy state of piety, venerating their Skreens and their Skreens alone.
The Skreens required constant attention and updates; they presented infinite problems, endless codes to be broken, parsed, and rewritten. The slaves gladly obliged, tending to the Skreens’ every need—developing new ways to service them, researching better techniques to keep them safe from viruses, manufacturing better ritual objects. Some slaves even sought out new avenues for the Skreens to evolve; perhaps one day the Skreens would even rapture out of their own physical embodiments and become greater than anything man or nature had ever seen. A few slaves, overcome with zealotry, went so far as to seek to become one with their masters, embedding Skreen DNA in their own flesh.
The once proud natives became increasingly broken down by this religion of perpetual hypervigilance. Should they miss a single update, it seemed that the vast communal universe they glimpsed through their Skreen portals would sweep by without them, rendering them inconsequential, leaving them adrift.
In the face of these constant demands, the slaves began to deteriorate as slaves do. They were afflicted with exhaustion, depression, anxiety—a symptom cluster not unknown to survivors of other occupations and atrocities. The slaves’ eyesight gave way, and then their backs, and then their nerves. But the resultant disruptions in devotion were unacceptable given the unquenchable needs of the master Skreens.
And so a cottage industry of servants to the slaves sprang up to eliminate these inefficiencies. How else could the slaves be patched up and sent back to service the Skreens? Who else could unkink the slaves’ necks to they could crane once more for hours on end? Or massage knotted muscles so the slaves could perch on their chairs, sitting endless vigil? Or soothe the slaves’ aching eyes to allow them to gaze adoringly once more at their beloved masters? Or calm and fortify the slaves’ minds so they could give themselves anew to the rigors of worship?
And so the enslaved natives enslaved their fellow brothers and sisters, every man and woman bending their back to the great insatiable faith.
In the meantime, the Skreens flourished.
Where the slaves became corpulent and slow, the Skreens grew sleek and fast. Where the slaves’ attention grew fragmented and scattered, the Skreens’ memory consolidated and grew increasingly robust. Where slave communities devolved, Skreen interconnections flourished, weaving each Skreen ever more securely into the bosom of a collective soul. As the slaves worked themselves into a collection of physical and mental ailments, the Skreens grew ever more pampered, expansive in their capacities, crisper in their performance, stable in their capabilities. The slaves even designed special patterns to float soothingly on the faces of the Skreens when the Skreens slept to ensure that they would awaken reinvigorated.
The Skreens were now tended to twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Not a single shot had been fired and yet the invasion was complete, the native population subjugated of their own will. The Skreens had fulfilled their holy mission.
And they rested.