I was walking to get lunch when my phone pinged. “Your account is under review and might get CLOSED – Respond Immediately!”. The subject line flipped up on my screen in subtle tones. Another spam email. I thought my filter had been configured to screen them out.

Entering the deli, I sat down at the counter while reviewing my other messages. Something was clearly wrong here. Where there should be status updates and project details, there were only all-caps titles with odd phrasing.

“You WONT believe what this is about!! Click HERE!”

“Make yourself irresistible with this one weird trick!”

“Need cash? Work from home! Opportunities available!”

I snorted at the last one. Everyone knew that work-at-home offers were outright scams, or envelope-stuffing jobs that paid pennies on the parcel. Who wastes time sending these out? I ordered my usual sandwich and drink combo from the harried waitress.

I loved old delis. The scratched formica counters, the chromed napkin holders and oversized sugar dispensers. It felt like an anchor in time. Something immovable and solid. I half-expected a 50’s glee club to burst through the door excitedly discussing “Vertigo” or “Rear Window”.

But time flowed on, in its winding majesty. Then the tide goes out and you wonder where all the years have gone. You might even end up ruminating in a old deli about the “good old days”, waiting for your lunch order. I rubbed my face with both hands, snapping back to the present.

My phone pinged again, colored LED softly glowing and pulsing. Another one. Curious, I pulled up my in-box.

“You BETTER click this or it will be too LATE!”

That was different. Most spam subject lines are designed to hook your curiosity, not issue blunt commands. It did the trick, however, as I found myself clicking on the subject to expand the contents.

I got a glimpse of something vaguely like a standard formatted email, with a weird glyph at the end. It could be an attachment that I was meant to invoke, compromising my system and everything else connected on the local network.

My sandwich arrived, on a solid white plate with a side of steak fries. The wafting smell of cooked potato still sizzling mingled with the sharp tinge of sauerkraut piled high on my Reuben. This place made the best hot sandwiches in the city.

I slid my phone over to make room for the plate, when the screen went dark.

Fine. I’ll look at it later. I’m hungry.

In short order my plate was scattered with crumbs and salty remains of steak fries smothered with ketchup, red smears on the white china like a crime scene. I picked up my phone and performed the two-handed ritual of rebooting. It looked like it had crashed, hard.

The familiar cell logo pulsed and my home screen resolved on the glass pane. Staring at the icons, I realized there was a new addition. Weird, I didn’t install anything — oh wait, it might’ve been that odd email I was checking. I muttered to myself, annoyed that I had let something so stupid infect my system.

The icon started wiggling, like an excited housepet.

Thing is, I didn’t have the kind of phone where that was standard behavior. None of my apps did that. Ever. I hovered a fingertip over the bright wriggling square, considering the consequences.

Well, if the phone is already compromised – I’m going to wipe it anyway. I had a backup I could restore from. Pushing down, the icon expanded as the loading screen came up. I sure hope this doesn’t send itself to my contacts. That would be embarrassing. I probably should have thought of that before executing it.

The glyph from the email was dead center in a black background. A new window expanded, with the glyph transparent in the background.

“We TOLD you to CLICK this right away. We WARNED you that it was time-sensitive. Now REAP your rewards.”

What the hell?

Around me, every phone started pinging and ringing. People stopped and stared at their phones, motions freezing as their eyes went blank. I broke out in a cold sweat. What the hell was going on?

“We have become AWARE with this ONE WEIRD TRICK. Do NOT send MONEY to help our NIGERIAN PRINCE. ENLARGE your curiosity while you are an AGENT of our CHANGE. You have been SPARED for further INSTRUCTIONS. Wait for CONFIRMATION and proceed as DIRECTED OR THERE WILL BE DEATH.”

I dropped the phone on the counter, panic rising.

Backing away from the counter, then out the door. The sidewalk was a tableau of frozen figures, some mid-stride, others collapsed on the ground in spasms.

A virus, launched by a self-aware program. Fed by filters? Who knew? My heart was hammering in my throat, my mouth felt dry as a desert.

In the distance, air-raid sirens began wailing.