by Norman Spinrad
If it wasn’t the best of times, at least it wasn’t the worst of times, or something like that, which is the opening line of a novel called A TALE OF TWO CITIES, and it seemed like this would be only a tale of one.
Back in the day before the Quarantine, Manhattan island was the heart and soul and pocketbook of New York City, to the extent that New York could have been said to have all three, Wall Street, Greenwich Village, Broadway and 42nd Street, and all that jazz. When you saw a movie or a TV show or an ad featuring New York, the Big Apple was Manhattan, not anything in what some visiting Californian must have dubbed the “Outer Boroughs,” the moral equivalent of Anaheim or Eagle Rock as far as a Hollywood wise guy was concerned.
Not that I was a Hollywood wise guy just because my sales office happened to be located on the seventh floor of one of those unglamorous glass towers at the business end of the Sunset Strip. My enterprise was perfectly legal, or anyway imperfectly legal enough, to avoid unwanted government attention, and far from being any part of show business despite the glamor of the name of the real estate.
You could say I was a pharmboy from the sheep-pharm sticks making my way in the City of Klieg Lights. You could say I was a naive bumpkin or a sleazy operator and I wouldn’t punch your nose, but call me a terrorist and I’ll break your kneecap, those raghead camel-jockeys or whoever they were used me like only a pawn in their game.
Which was all I really was. A middleman, one of the unglamorous cogs in the machinery that keeps any economy running and pharmers feeding their sheep and pigs. I had grown up in the Pharm Country inland from the Californian coastal range and up country in the Central Valley between it and the Sierras.
My parents were third generation removed from their hippie ancestors and the Central Valley wasn’t anything like Mendicino dope country or Big Sur artsy fartsy. They were second generation pharmers, and the Pharm Country looked no different from what it had long been until you descended to a molecular level.
There of course it was biomolecular Silicon Valley. My folks were no more than sheepherders, really, owning the flock whose milk produced the desired molecules inserted in their genomes ordered up by the clients from pharm labs with--and for sufficient extra payment black geneleggers without--pharmaceutical licenses .
So I grew up in the Pharm Country scene and knew enough to know that I didn’t want to that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life smelling sheep shit long before I escaped from high school. And I had about as much talent for gene writing as I did for quantum physics, namely none at all, and even less interest in learning, seeing as how I knew first hand that those guys spent their working hours tediously bending their shoulders over nanoscopes and biosynthesizers, about as much fun as barrel of number crunchers.
But there was a place for me in the Pharming business, and having grown up in Pharm Country was a leg up. The geneleggers as persons, and even the presidents of legit corporate versions, were not exactly the sort of humans who interfaced well with the drug companies and drug lords who commissioned their products, and the Pharmers who grew and harvested the results from their sheep and pigs were not the sort of folks capable of or wanting to negotiate their own contracts.
So that’s where I came it. That’s what middlemen are for. The clients with the checkbooks give me the desired specs, I pharm out the work of turning them into insertable genes to a lab or legger, and make the manufacturing deal with the sheep herders, making my not unreasonable percentages along the flow. You don’t have to torture your brain with any scientific detail or deal with stinky sheep.
A nice clean desk job in a nice clean office in a nice clean business.
Well okay, not squeaky clean all the time, maybe, but what business really is? Investment banking? Real estate? Accounting?
Gimme a break!
In the real world, the customer is always right as long as the checks don’t bounce and you personally are not required to do anything illegal that you know of. Especially when you’re working in a niche market where the customers are limited to drug companies whose number crunchers calculate that it’s cheaper to farm out the synthesizing and production than to handle those ends themselves, purveyors of recreational drugs shall we say, and well-heeled nut cases think they can order up something to fix whatever might be ailing them and live forever.
You don’t make a good living as a middleman by asking questions whose answers you don’t want to hear or turning up you nose at sweetheart deals that maybe have a little odor of fish oil to them.
Oh no you wouldn’t!b
The clients is a blond surfer type in a slickly tailored suit I could never bring myself to afford, or that’s the image he’d like to have, but beneath the dreads is the face of a shy little nerd who gets sand kicked in his face on Malibu each, and beneath the Eurotrash threads beats the heart of a geek.
When I google him, he turns out to be head of technical development in a Silicon Valley company called Cyborg Services Incorporated that furnishes defense contractors with spook shop weapons control systems I don’t even want to try to understand. His current bank balance is larger than his position would seem to warrant, but when I dig deeper, I see that it’s recent, and beneath that there’s something vague about a killing at an Indian Casino, before which it had been hovering about where it should belong..
When he tells me what he wants I just about shit.
Because that is what he wants.
“I want a virus that gives you diarrhea, man” tells me.
“You want what?”
“I mean, them, not you!”
“Those CSI bastards who stole my patents!”
“Your company stole your patents?”
“Their lawyers did! You’d have to have an electron microscope to read the fine print.”
A sad story, but an oft-told tale in Silicon Valley, and not exactly breaking news in Pharm Country either.
“It’s got to be ambient,” he tells me. “With as short an incubation period as possible. I want it to toss it into the air conditioning system and infect the whole damn building at once like Legionnaire's Disease. I want them all fighting for stalls in the toilet at the same time. They’re so cheap there’s only one a floor!”
I gotta laugh, wouldn’t you?
“Will you send me the video?” I giggle.
“Send it to you! I’ll put it on YouTube!”
“Sounds difficult but maybe doable,” I tell him. This just sales pitch. Even I know that all that has to be done is lift a sequence from a dysentery bacterium or something like it and drop it in the right virus genome, a piece of cake, probably won’t even have to be synthesized from the ground up, which is what I’m gonna tell the geneleggers I have low-bidding for the contract, blackleggers given the effect it calls for, of course.
“Uh, how long is the effect supposed to last? A self-destruct timer sequence is going to cost you a little extra.”
But he’s not interested in paying for bells and whistles.
“Who cares?” he tells me. “Let them shit in their pants until their assholes fall off!”
Okay, so in current retrospect, maybe I should’ve had the twinge of moral questionability in my gut, but my funny bone might be said to have been clouding my conscience, or maybe it was indeed the money. After all, this guy knew nothing about what the traffic should bear and I knew how much there was to lay my hands on.
On the other hand, you could say that I did, this seemed to be turning out to be the sweetest deal I ever made, so what the hell, I told myself, you can afford to be a sport and pay for the self-destruct timer sequence yourself, now can’t you?
After I was through jacking the price for the virus, he handed me a further lollipop and then took it away when I asked him how much of the stuff he wanted the sheep to produce, figuring maybe I could toss the business to my own folks and do them their own inflated good turn of luck.
“All I need is a single spray-can sample I can blow through the air conditioning system on my way out the door,” he tells me.
My stomach sank. This is a deal breaker. I make the lion’s share of my commissions on ongoing production.
“I’ve never done a penny-ante deal like that,” I tell him.
“Could you get it done?”
“Well yeah, but---”
“How much would you ask for two years’ production at ten thousand doses per annum?”
I tell him. It’s a lot of money. It’s more than it should really cost. It’s only a few thousand less than I know he has.
“It’s a deal, I’ll pay it all just for the sample. We don’t want to give more than one building full of thieving bastards the terminal trots, now do we? It’s just a practical joke, now isn’t?”
“Well, when you put it that way, you talked me into it....”
What do I care, you work with CSI and the spook shops and defense contractors who commission your brilliance, you get used to stuff like this. Don’t ask, because we won’t tell you, and if you persist, we might get pissed off, and pissing us off would not be good for CSI’s business, which would not be good for retaining your position.
CSI stole my patents?
What an inside joke!
Anyone who worked in Cyber Control land knew that there were never any patents there to steal because what we so brilliantly invented to order was work for government hire that disappeared down the event horizon of security classification.
But that was the script I was handed, and I guess they were right, whoever they were, it was good enough to get a Pharm Country businessman drooling for a deal where he would make out like a bandit and asking no questions that might get in the way.
Not that I wasn’t making out like a bandit too, not that I was about to question what I was doing or why either, it was an offer from you have no need to know and one you do know it you would be real counterproductive to refuse.
Cloak and dagger stuff
I meet a woman in a casino who hands me a sack of chips worth half a million dollars, which I am to exchange for cash on the way out, and then deposit in my bank account. With this I am to buy the virus described in the genome specs she gives me with it.
“Hey, butter buns, wait a minute, what’s in all this for me?”
Never fear, she tells me, once you hand over the virus package, the half mil will appear back in your bank account as the same gambling winnings, you walk away with them, and none of this ever happened.
Well, I had no self-interest in asking if this was an offer I couldn’t refuse, because I sure didn’t want to refuse. Half a million dollars! Who wanted to refuse this gift horse? Who was I to ask my unidentifiable benefactor why he, she, or it wanted a virus that delivered diarrhea?
I could see that if this wasn’t classified secret it should be. Would I really want to know?Could it be anything worse than all the low toilet humor called up by even trying to not think about it?
You do get some weird orders in this end of the gene writing game, what the government licensed end pleases itself to call black genelegging. I mean, they work the high end center, and we work the dodgy edge, so what can you expect?
So what ended up being called the Big D seemed like more of the same, and I wasn’t going to have to deal with the usual sort of drug lord thugs who might ice you if something went wrong or stiff you on the payout if it didn’t, this order came from a legit and legal agent.
He thought he was technically knowledgeable, but he really wasn’t that up on the tech end, and the job was a lot easier than he thought it was, so I made out pretty well on the price.
We don’t tell the middlemen, but those of us in this end of the trade have a whole library of cassette virus genomes that we share among ourselves, stripped-down chassis as it were, on which we can simply hang sequences to produce whatever molecule gets ordered up. Ambient spread sequences we’ve already got from pirated military genomes the military wouldn’t dare to admit even exist, and self-destruct timers have long been worked out for the drug lords who don’t want open-ended reproduction cycles to devalue their goods to zero by giving away permanent freebies. The first three weeks are free, kid, and then....
So the only original art really required was the diarrhea sequence. Why anyone would want that was not hard to imagine, hey, there was a two-week cut-off sequence in the specs, wasn’t there, so it’s not like I was writing anything worse than a two-week dose of Montezuma’s Revenge, and who but an angel didn’t have someone he’d like to lay that on, and even then...
Dysentery was naturally the first thing to come to mind, but that’s really a symptom, not a single disease, caused by whole clades of organisms even as complex as amoebas, and the cascades from cause to effect tend to get inelegantly complex.
But I didn’t have to do any real research to come up with cholera. Endemic in Third World environs, where it can even be fatal if untreated, but easily treated with IVs of doctored fluids in the developed world, and the neat thing about it is there’s no complicated cascade.
The cholera bacterium produces a toxic molecule called CTX, or just “cholera toxin,” which binds directly to the guts and causes the effect. No problemo! Just snip the sequence that codes for the toxin’s production from a cholera genome, write it into your cassette virus genome, and run it through your DNA synthesizer. A schoolboy could do it in an afternoon, and given what some schoolboys are like, wouldn’t surprise me if some of them had.
That’s about how long it took me to do it, but of course you don’t tell the customer that, we don’t charge by the hour, but it still pays to sit on the product for a couple of weeks pissing and moaning about how difficult this order is to fulfill all the while to justify the price
Something like what experienced screenwriters do before they hand in the scripts they finished a couple weeks ago to their producers, or so I’ve been given to understand.
They never caught whoever delivered the stuff to New York or found out in the service of what cause this act of terrorism was committed, not for lack of the all the usual suspects, but because credit, if that is the word, for this outrageous outrage was claimed by every one of them.
In the living theater of terrorism, this was the mother of all custard pies that any race, creed, or religious nut cult of whatever size would want to take credit for throwing in the face of their own version of the Great Satan.
It wasn’t even a suicide mission, just a free trip to the Big Apple for someone from somewhere who had only to spread the Big D virus around Manhattan with some kind of spray can for a few hours and leave before what was going to happen happened. He’d get it too, but he’d be outside with it long before the Quarantine wall went up.
Me, I wasn’t so lucky. In fact my luck was so bad that it still has me wondering about things like karmic retribution, or when it really gets bad, uh, cosmic punishment for my, ah, sin.
Okay, after spending six months in the Quarantine Zone, I’m forced to admit that maybe procuring the Big D bug for a supposed nasty geekboy prank was maybe a bit greedily and deliberately naive, but hey, didn’t his Google story more or less fit the cock and bull story he told me?
No one’s ever pinned anything the client that ordered it up either, and no one ever will because I’m the only one who can finger him and if I do, I’m fingering myself.
Not that I don’t give the private finger to myself for my innocent part in bringing Manhattan to its knees with its pants down.
When I think about it, and how can I not, there was a part of me, a little cricket of conscience that might have taken temporary residence, and told me to hedge my retrospectively immoral bet by paying for a two week self-destruct sequence in the virus with some of my lavish and easily earned money.
Saving my own ass and the aching asses of all the survivors of the Manhattan Quarantine by doing at least a little bit of unwitting communal good just in case, as it turned out.
Or as cosmic justice or as Judge Doody might have it, let the punishment fit the crime with a bit shaved off for a little morally correct behavior. Maybe there ain’t no justice in this world but the justice that you make, but that doesn’t mean that you know you’re making it at the time, and it doesn’t mean you’re gonna like it.
For instance, was it chance, fate, karma, or not at all divine retribution that I just happened to be in Manhattan when the Big D hit?
It seemed like a good idea at the time and even now I can almost convince myself that it was chance bad luck. What chance, or bad luck really is, though, is probably one of the top five unanswerable questions of human existence.
I was just another gawk-eyed tourist, that’s all I was. I had made myself an easy major killing, and it seemed to me I had earned and could easy afford a quick vacation. I had never been in the Big Apple, though like everyone else in the known universe I had seen almost as much of it as TV and movie set as Los Angeles. And Los Angeles I knew in the real world, which was enough to convince me that the real New York was not going to be just the Disney version either.
So when I saw an ad for a three-day package, air fare included, with a single in the fabulous Grand Hyatt on 42nd Street and a fistful of discount coupons for trendy restaurants and fancy call girl services, I decided to blow some of my winnings on my virgin trip to the Big Apple. Cheaper and safer than to tempt mesmerized stupidity at the tables in Vegas again and probably a lot more entertaining than casino floor shows.
The Grand Hyatt was indeed on fabulous 42nd Street, but it was on East 42nd Street, above Grand Central Station, a huge subterranean metro and railroad hub. You didn’t hear anything in your room, which was nothing to complain about, but the continual comings and goings of taxis and buses and cars and subway commuters clogging this stretch of 42nd Street was going to keep it from ever being more fabulous than what surrounds downtown major railway stations anywhere.
So after I had checked in, unpacked, and had a drink in the bar, I decided to walk west on 42nd Street to Times Square, which, from what I had seen on television, was like what downtown Tokyo also looked on the tube, architecture as hoardings for huge neon signs and huger video screens; a neon canyon of giant animated billboards and sci-fi magazine cover buildings, the hub of Broadway and 42nd Street, the belly button of the intersection of show business and Godzilla-scaled advertising.
I can’t say I was disappointed by this architectural Vegas-on the Hudson spectacle, but I also can’t deny that I was disappointed by the tourist trade that it drew, jamming the sidewalks and milling and baa-ing like confused corralled sheep in the intersections, made even the “family friendly” venues in Las Vegas seem like the back streets of Tijuana, tourists like you’d find in the malls around Anaheim Disneyland or suburban Orlando.
Time was, Broadway and 42nd Street had a juicy reputation for hookers and porn houses and interesting sleaze. I wasn’t enough of a rube from Pharm Country to expect the X-rated to still be there, but I would have hoped that the tourist trade would be playing to its memory with at least little harmless R rated atmosphere.
But instead you had mom and pop and the kids from Pasadena, beered-out college kids in Bermuda shorts and unfunny T-shirts, wide-eyed rubes from Indiana and India, pink and green spandex tights over overweight asses, baseball caps for non-existent teams. Hordes of mall rats in a giant outdoor mall world, fast-food chain food restaurants replacing greasy spoons and bad-ass saloons, souvenir stands and trademarked sporting goods palaces for the Yankees and Mets replacing knock-offs of Frederics of Hollywood and Virginia’s Secret, first-run movie theaters replacing XXX with Parental Guidance Advised.
The Disney version, including musical shows produced by same dominating the Great White Way, for the middle everything tourist trade.
And what was I but another tourist out to gawk at the sights, and wondering why everything everywhere in the US of A was starting to look like everywhere else aside from the window-dressing? The same phony upscale ethnic fast food chain restaurants tarted up like the real things, the same department stores, the same chain drug stores, the same crowds of generic people.
Okay, maybe my sour mood as I stood there disappointed by the reality of a Times Square which was nothing like its fabled fantasy ghost might have been influenced by the growing realization that I had to take a crap.
And I had no sooner realized this than the situation started becoming urgent, like the results of eating off an outdoor taco stand in down and dirty Mexico, comes at you with a rush.
Could I make it to the hotel? It seemed less and less likely. Could I find a public toilet on 42nd Street or buy a toilet seat in a bar? Seemed easy enough, seemed like the logical thing to do, but I while I’m one of those guys who have no problem at crowded urinals, never in my life had I sat down behind a stall door and loosed a load or even imaged that I could bring myself to do it.
On the other hand I had never crapped in my pants standing upright either, let alone while being jostled by the crowd of tourists on Times Square. If it had to be one thing or the other, I really had no choice.
So I trotted with the trots back towards the Grand Hyatt hoping against unrealistic hope that I could hold out till I got to my room, while more realistically and more and more frantically trying to find a less private refuge along the way.
I only half-noticed that I didn’t seem to be alone in my urgency as I kneed-and elbowed through the crush of people shame-facedly averting their gazes from every one they could who had already lost control, more and more of them, screaming kids and cursing lager louts, old couples looking for holes to drop down into, men and women leaning against lamp-posts clutching their guts, even cops who had obviously lost it.
Until I saw that my chances of securing a toilet seat anywhere were slim and none. Similar cross sections of diarrheic humanity were shoving and jostling and punching at each other like rush hour crowds trying to fight their way through the door to any establishment that looked like it might have a crapper.
And lot of good it would have done me to fight my way into a bar or restaurants. Looking through the windows, all you could see were frantic mobs trying to push their way past the crush at the rear by the toilets and hammering at the doors.
And then, at the intersection of 42nd and Madison, within tantalizing sight of the Hyatt, I got caught by a traffic light full of grid-locked vehicles on a sidewalk crammed with the afficted, and, no longer in motion, got a standing whiff of the smell spreading like the mother of all class-room farts, and that did it, I could no longer keep myself from adding my share to the fecal stink.
And ended up slinking through the hotel lobby admidst crowds of groaning and odorous fellow victims to my room, where I had just enough time to strip and shower before I found myself plunking down on the cold porcelain of the hungry john.
Between trips to the toilet and room service food and drink that was later and later in coming and went right through me like hot grease through a tin horn, I didn’t even think about television through the sleepless night and way into the next morning. I was too sick to think about anything until a desperate call to housekeeping for more toilet paper was greeted by a coarse distracted croak to the effect that every room in the hotel was screaming for more toilet paper too and the staff itself was in no condition to go far enough away from the nearest toilet to provide it.
Then my illness reached my brain, and through it my conscience, and it penetrated my dysenteric torture that half the people I had seen in the street were afflicted, and now the hotel, and it didn’t seem statistically likely that there was anything that could have mobs of people inflicted at the same time other than the virus I had procured for that guy who claimed he only wanted to use it on his bosses.
Let the punishment fit the crime?
My punishment was the crime.
I turned on the television to see how bad it was.
I had somehow hoped it would be nervous toilet humor titters, but if it had been, they were gone. What was genteelly being called the Big D after some kid had called it the Big Doody into an open mike was spreading from the general area of mid-town Manhattan, the two main foci at Herald Square and Times Square having merged as the Big D rolled upward through Central Park and downward toward the Village, Tribeca, and Wall Street.
Homeland Security was closing all bridges and tunnels out of the island of Manhattan until further notice and the Center for Disease Control was reassuring the rest of the city that this Quarantine would allow whatever it was to be contained. That was the official line. The talking heads were paying little attention to it.
Most of the coverage was calling it a terrorist attack.
And it had to be. Somehow the virus I had given that cybergeek to take vengeance on his bosses with had fallen into terrorist hands.
Yeah, sure, more likely I had been in terrorist hands from the beginning, greed clouding my mind so that it had never occurred to me that I was being run through their scenario, that the fairy story I was happily swallowing was a threadbare cover.
Either way, there was nothing I could do about it now but sit on the toilet and groan. I couldn’t go to the cops. I’d just get myself arrested. And what could I tell them that would do any good?
Well, I could let the public know that their intestinal torment and mine would be over two weeks after exposure, assuming that they survived that long. I could even take credit for it. I’d probably have to to convince anybody. And to do that, I’d have to incriminate myself. If I told the true story, who would believe I had been such an innocent schmuck rather than a terrorist myself? The legal ire and public rage would be taken out on me. Big Time.
Still if I could email the CDC that the epidemic would be over in two weeks maybe they could calm the worst of the terror with the news....
But not from the hotel. It had to be anonymously from the nearest Internet cafe, and it was my moral duty to drag my aching and bleeding ass there. They were telling everyone now trapped in Manhattan to keep hydrated, how anyone else was trying to do that while seated on the john, I don’t know, but it had been easy for me because I could reach the toilet sink faucet without getting up.
But everything I drank went right through me. At unpredictable intervals. TV witchdoctors were proclaiming that this was how dysentery and cholera and diarrhea in general were mass killers in third world countries, you dehydrated, toxified your kidneys, or even hemorrhaged to death through your asshole. In more advanced countries, you could ride it out by going to a hospital to be put on intravenous fluid feed.
Lotsa luck to the quarantined masses in Manhattan!
Lotsa luck to me, hero that I was, or call it shame-faced guilt, which was closer to the truth, I had to get to an Internet cafe, and if I had to piss uncontrollably through my rectum to do it, that’s what I had to do too.
I made it down to the lobby with dry underwear and out onto 42nd Street, where I disgraced myself in public for the first time.
Traffic had gridlocked to a standstill because no one caught in the cars or busses or taxis had what it took to drive. Crowds of tourists and commuters who couldn’t get home were squatting right there on the sidewalk, clutching their aching guts, groaning, moaning, hopelessly wiping at their butts with shirtails and underwear, and cursing at whatever gods there be.
The streets were practically flooded with feces and vaguely brownish liquids, the stench had me retching, and I was far from the only one who would have been puking their guts out if they had anything left to puke.
My pants were soaking wet before I traversed the three blocks to the nearest Internet cafe, but I was no longer paying any attention to the state of my urinary dishabille, indeed there was a certain relief to surrendering to the freedom of a camel in the desert or a horse in Central Park....
The Mayor of New York was screaming from the Gracie Mansion toilet at Washington, Washington was screaming at us to come up with an antidote the day before yesterday, and as surely as the odorous symptom was known to always flow downhill, the suits above me at the Center for Disease Control were screaming downhill at me as the head of the research team to come up with the miracle at once or else.
But my white-coated boys and girls were already doing their usual crackerjack job. Volunteers in sealed environment suits had no trouble securing samples. Piles and pools of feces containing the D bug were everywhere. We had already sequenced the genome and knew what we were up against.
For all the good that that did.
There could be no magic ampules of antidote to this
The core was a simple cassette virus on whose genome you could hang a sequence for any molecule, we used it ourselves to deliver killed-virus vaccines, and so did commercial drug companies, everyone in the game who was anyone had the specs, for all practically purposes it was public domain.
But this thing had been devilishly tweaked. It had been made ambient. Its incubation time was speeded up to only six hours. After which, every ounce of fluid that a victim released, every breath, released more.
And a sequence had been coded into the genome for CTX, not a vaccine or a virus coat, but a simple molecule, the so-called cholera toxin that caused the symptoms, lifted from the cholera bacterium, for which there was no magic bullet antidote, the only treatment being IV infusions of hydrating fluid and salts until the toxin finally flushed out.
Worse still, even then no immunity was conferred, you could be reinfected endlessly. And everyone in Manhattan would be. Permanently infected and permanently infectious until...until...
The only upside was that Manhattan was an island, so the Quarantine could be easily maintained. For as long as it took. The administration was not amused when I told them that I had no idea how long that would be, but it would have been worse if I had told them the truth, namely that the Big D could not be expected to expire until every one on Manhattan was dead.
And then I was handed an unsigned email which claimed that there was a two week self-destruct sequence written into the virus genome.
Well, we were getting all sorts of crackpot quack advice, but this email claimed to be from the miscreant who had innocently commissioned its creation for a client who had convinced him he just wanted it for a disgusting schoolboy revenge against his bosses, which somehow gave it a certain credibility, at least enough for me to take a closer look at the genome.
Someone was going to pay dearly for missing it, because the self-destruct sequence was indeed there.
Or maybe not. After all I hadn’t been paying attention to anything beside the toxin and the ambience and the incubation time sequences the first time around, so maybe it was forgivable, since I would also be forgiving myself.
Whoever had written the email seemed to believe he had solved our problem for us, that the timed autodestruct sequence he had paid his own money to insert in the virus genome would extinguished it in two weeks. It read like he expected the Nobel Prize.
But of course he was wrong. The each individual virus would die off in two weeks within any given host, but each individual virus was reproducing and spreading its genome every six hours, previous infection did not confer immunity, each host could be reinfected indefinitely, and each of the hundreds of millions of copies spewed from every host’s every orifice would have its own clock started at zero. The species itself would live as long as there were living hosts alive in the Quarantine zone.
That the D plague would only end when everyone quarantined on Manhattan Island had died, needless to say, was news I dared not kick upstairs until I had something positive to kick up with it.
Well, just as the bureaucratic frenzy roared downhill, I wasn’t above channeling it likewise, and under this admittedly unjust pressure, one of my bright boys came up with a strategy.
Clever. Elegant. And retrospectively obvious.
The D bug had already been tweaked, or more likely synthesized, and of course we had the tech to do likewise and better. And we could take a tip from cutting edge insect extermination programs.
One of their promising techniques was to raise vast clouds of sterile clones of the target species more robust than the target species and therefore more successful at survival, thereby outcompeting it into local extinction, at least in circumscribed fields of test crops.
So we could clone the D virus, and snip out the sequence that coded for the cholera toxin, creating a version that would drive the original version to extinction by replacing it with its harmless self, since a parasite that doesn’t kill or harm its host is going to outbreed one that does.
That was the good news.
How long would it take to render the original D bug extinct?
We ran it through the computer, the estimated current population of Manhattan, the two week self-destruct, the six hour incubation period, and what it coughed out was the bad news.
It would take four to eight months.
Six months in the Quarantine zone, and I had sentenced myself to them, along with a two and a half million other people, the pre-die-off population, or so I was to learn later. At least it seemed that my email had gotten through to someone at the CDC, because they put out a press release that they had a means of salvation under development, so please be patient.
They didn’t say how long it would take, but I knew because I had told them, and I alone knew they probably weren’t really doing anything because they knew that in two weeks the D-bug would go extinct all by itself They were faking it, preparing to take the credit for the extinction of the Big D bug when it happened.
Meanwhile no one could leave Manhattan, but relief supplies and teams could get in, and at least as reported by what was left of TV coverage, the talking heads themselves speaking inside environmental isolation suits and croaking it out through respirator mikes, the National Guard, and the regular Army, and the Red Cross, and Medicines sans Frontiers were already active in Manhattan.
There was footage, all of it shot from high hovering helicopters through lenses as long as the proverbial ten-foot pole, of space-suited figures in white crossing the bridges in good formation, of the tents and field hospitals going up all over Central Park, Army trucks unloading crates of Meals Ready to Eat, the various government and relief agencies acting as if they were setting up a can-do American version of a Third World refugee camp.
At least this is what it looked like on television. My first actual contact with the relief forces was a knock on the door of my room by a space-suited soldier who handed me something that looked like a translucent enema bag filled with water. There was a hook at one end, and a syringe hanging at the other end from a yellow rubber hose.
This, I was informed in staccato military parrot-speak, was an SRU, a Self Rehydration Unit, the use of which was demonstrated by hanging the bag on a doorknob, pushing me to the floor, and jabbing around painful in my elbow pit till he finally found a vein.
“The reservoir must always be positioned above the needle or gravity will not cause the solution to flow down the hose. Continue to drink copious amounts of water or other neutral fluids. The SRU solution will mitigate or even prevent dehydration symptoms other than the continued loss of fluids excreted by your anal orifice, but it is not at this time a cure for the viral-caused diarrhea. A third of a bagful should be infused every six hours, refills will be available as supply permits.”
And out the door to the next room, and the next, and the next.
It seemed like a tranquilizer news story for those us of inside the Quarantine and window-dressing for the world outside. Yes, it sort of worked, my trips to the toilet maybe lessened a bit, my flesh seemed to stop shrinking from my bones, and I was almost feeling human, at least for a couple of hours after that first dose.
But, I was a paying guest in the Grand Hyatt hotel, and there were at least two million people who weren’t sealed inside Quarantine zone, clutching their guts in tenement and luxury tower apartments, holed up in fleabags, out there on the streets, out in the Central Park refugee camp tents, or wandering around looking for holes to stay sick in.
The SRUs seemed like military battlefield issue. How many of them could be immediately available? Certainly not two and a half million, the United States didn’t even have that many combat troops. And even if the SRUs were instead meant and stockpiled for major Third World relief missions so that there were enough to go around, how long would it take to distribute them to two and a half million people?
They certainly couldn’t do it in two weeks. They had to know that. Long before they could get the SRUs to more than a small fraction of the victims, it would all be over. They had to know that too, didn’t they?
Or did they?
Maybe the CDC wasn’t telling the relief authorities what I had told them. Or maybe Homeland Security had decreed that the troops would be better actors in this pacifying media show if they didn’t know they were play-acting. Maybe the military figured it could use some good heroic civilian PR footage.
What was really going on out there?
Curiosity got the worse of me, or guilt got the better, or both, and I tanked up on a double dose of SRU elixir, and foolishly ventured to go outside for the first time in how many days I couldn’t quite remember to have a look.
What assailed me was nothing like what I had been seeing on television.
The main entrance to Grand Central Station beneath the Grand Hyatt was like something out of Hieronymus Bosch or S. Clay Wilson, sheltering, if that is the word, a clogging encampment, if you could call it that, of the rotting dead and mewling dying, lying in a viscous pond of reeking brown liquid, with hardly an SRU in sight. Low-life pickpockets and drunk-rollers, many bent over in dehydrating agony themselves, retched their way through the dead and the barely still-living, squabbling among themselves for turf with bloody knives and the occasional brandished pistol.
Since they were occupied with easier carrion game like hyenas or vultures, I was mercifully ignored as I snake-danced through this horror show across 42nd Street, where a kind of rude field hospital had been set up inside a khaki tent, cordoned off by soldiers in full-battle gear to control the desperate hordes fighting, crawling, shoving, to get inside at what few SRUs there were before they were all gone, which looked like very soon.
I made my way west towards Bryant Park, stumbling through aisles of corpses and about to be corpses, the dead being picked over by pigeons and more crows than a city is supposed, even the marginally still living enveloped by clouds of less fastidious feasting flies.
Bryant Park was another refugee camp, but this one wasn’t like the footage I had seen of the one in Central Park, not like anything that belonged anywhere in the United States, something more like Haiti after the great earthquake, only made much worse by sprawling behind the noble neo-Greek Classical architecture of the emphatically First World library building.
This obscene back yard was a lowland favela of packing crate huts and tents rudely fashioned from black plastic garbage bags, jammed, crawling, and overrun with stricken humanity and dead bodies no one had bothered to remove, stinking to the skies of feces and piss and liquefying flesh, with no cops or troops or relief workers in evidence. Here and there, the greasy smoke and sulfurish smoldering flames of garbage can fires perfected the hellish vision without doing anything to mask the stench of death and pestilence.
I turned my shamefully grateful back on the plight of the masses huddling in agony on the rim of the pit, and retreated in dishonor back to the relative comfort of my swiftly degenerating four star hotel.
By now, everyone knows all too well what happened after two weeks, namely nothing of salvational significance, not that this was probably much of a surprise to the remaining survivors, who no doubt now rationed their expectations to the hope of surviving another day.
Martial law was officially declared, there were now regular airdrops of MREs from the helicopters, and, so at least the news claimed, the crash production of SRUs, none of which had fallen from the heavens like mana as yet.
There was a limited supply of environmental isolation suits, no relief workers were allowed in or out without them, and so the field hospitals and forces of law and order were understaffed and overwhelmed well past the point of chaos.
I was probably the only person inside the Quarantine zone who was surprised and appalled by what had not happened.
What had gone wrong? Why hadn’t the D-bug died off?
Well, of course, I know now. It took the powers that be another week to shower the zone with mist from helicopters and crop-dusters as if we were a herd of louse-infected sheep, while declaring that this would eventually vanquish the Big D.
It took another two weeks of aggressive investigative reporting and impolite grilling of the head of the Center for Disease Control to extract an unwillingly coherent explanation of what that mist was in terms the scientifically unwashed could understand.
We have created a harmless clone of the D-bug that will outbreed the variant that causes diarrhea into extinction, much as excessive use of antibiotics evolves microbes that are immune to them by process of natural selection. When that process is completed, the D-bug will be rendered permanently harmless, and the Quarantine will be lifted.
When anyone at the CDC was asked how long that would take, the reporter was referred to Homeland Security, from which the answer was always exactly the same:
“That information is classified.”
No wonder it was classified! They really didn’t have an answer, no one knew how long it would take for the benign D bug to breed its evil older brother into extinction, or really if it would even work, until it finally did, and the CDC got a collective Nobel Prize.
It finally took six agonizing months, and if they had even hinted at such an estimate, things would’ve gotten much worse inside the Quarantine zone even while they were getting better, in a way because they were getting better.
We were being dug in for a long haul, though we never knew it day by day.
Environment protection suits were few and far between, but there were plenty of us who would do a day’s grim labor for the bags of SRU which were never really in adequate supply, and enough soldiers to keep control of what there was, and keep those who had gone feral at a distance.
I myself even removed rotting corpses from streets and apartments for my daily bag for a while, a disgusting enough job that had to done, but better than spending the same time moaning on a toilet seat.
Body counters accompanied us, and when the streets of Manhattan were cleared of dead bodies, and pieces of dead bodies, and puddles of decomposed protoplasm, the count was two hundred thousand, plus or minus a 20% margin of error, and something like 2 million survivors to be maintained until the Quarantine was lifted.
There had already been spontaneous tent villages and favella shacks springing up in the major parks, but then they sent in scores of thousands of collapsible cardboard shelters that became known as “rabbit hutches” coated with waterproof film and distributed them free, and orderly hives of them arose in every scrap of parkland or vacant lot.
Porta-potties were brought in. Well-guarded SRU supply depots were set up on major intersections. MREs were distributed daily at them too, and the bigger ones had field hospitals.
We were being taken care of, if not well, then adequately enough to keep the lid on, if not by all that much. Believe me, the Quarantine zone, far from the heroic images you see in the Hollywood versions now, was never exactly a selfless patriotic utopia where the lions laid down with the lambs for the greater good.
And there were people who smelled a perfumed sewer rat in the air, myself included, not that we could do anything about it. At the time, it pissed me off--the situation was being stabilized, too stabilized--but looking back from an informed and wiser perspective, it was better than telling us the truth.
Because chances are that had it been admitted from the beginning that the Nobel class genome-writing cure for our ills and key to our freedom from this cozy prison camp would take half a year to work, it probably would have ignited an enraged bloodbath.
Wouldn’t you join in?
Facing months in this well-maintained American refugee camp on American soil for a crime you didn’t commit without even knowing when you would be released, or even if?
Of course you would’ve.
Even I would’ve, even though I at least was being incarcerated for precisely the crime I did unknowingly commit.
But they handled it. They handled us professionally and adeptly for what turned out to be six months. A lot of us didn’t like being handled like that at at all, but in the end, I haven’t heard anyone who had been there wish they hadn’t done it, considering the alternatives. Like if mobs had rushed the bridges and the troops had to be ordered to fire. Like if anger turned to mindless self-destructive looting. Like any number of things to be glad of didn’t happen.
Instead, things slowly got marginally better in the Zone. You could count on being clean and reinfected at unpredictable intervals, but as long as you had your daily bag, you could more or less function, and your health could be almost stable.
Everything was stable, or so it seemed. Food was free, and so was your rabbit hutch, SRUs required some labor, but there really wasn’t much you had to do or could do. So you spent most of the time waiting. The incidence of diarrheic D reinfection was steadily waning, or so we were told, and it was easy enough to believe since I had fewer and further episodes of the trots myself.
Any day now....
Well we all know that even all bad things must come to an end, we do still believe that, don’t we?
At the time, no one knew about the worse things coming when the Quarantine was finally lifted. The date and time were announced. Marines manned the bridge and tunnel entrances in their spiffy dress uniforms with battalions of press lined up behind them. On the Washington and Brooklyn bridges they even turned out brass bands and surviving glad-handing local politicians. A landing pad had been cleared of rabbit hutches on the Sheep Meadow in Central Park for the Presidential helicopter, otherwise jammed with the largest and certainly most welcoming crowd it had ever seen.
The President debarked in a white environmental suit with her seal emblazoned on the chest as her Marine band played “Hail to the Chief.”
When she removed the helmet, took a deep breath, and waved her long blond hair as if she were still doing shampoo commercials, it was all over, and a great cheer went up.
It was all over except, that is, for the speechifying and the talk show blather and the back-slapping self-satisfied paens to the triumph of American scientific ingenuity and military professionalism over the forces of cunning and evil terrorism, which had not only destroyed the D-bug, but in the process had developed a viral counterweapon that now would render any such attack powerless.
But out here in Pharm Country, we knew better, and if the likes of middle men like me didn’t get it by ourselves, the cackling sort of leggers had already perversely and ghoulishly informed us that something like it, given the prevalence of even more ruthless and mercenary genewriters than themselves, was bound to happen again.
Every legger here, black or otherwise, had the specs of the original D-bug and its nemesis too. For most of the leggers this was sheer geeky curiosity, but inevitably there were those, some of whom were known by odorous reputation, to whom it would be just business.
And given the profusion of terrorist causes, given that it would be so easy to do that the black leggers unprincipled enough to take such contracts, never in short supply, would be competing to be the low bidder, they would not lack for clients.
“With these specs, it’s a piece of devil’s food cake,” one of these bastards told me. “Write the sequences for ambient infection and speeded-up incubation period into the good old tried and true cassette virus core than everyone has the code for, and hang any cascade end-product toxin that does the dirty work you get paid for onto it, and hey presto, cut-rate cookbook chemistry bio-weapon for the terrorist masses. Cholera, Polio, Aids, whatever, name your poison, hah, hah, hah!”
This I was told before Orlando got hit with killer flu and Los Angeles with Ebola. Another of these ruthlessly mercenary black leggers did a masked TV interview pointing out that cloning and tweaking a benign version of each and every such virus would have to be done from scratch each time. And since there would not likely be a self-destruct sequence mercifully written into any new terrorist virus, breeding it out of existence or at least into harmlessness with Mr. Hyde’s Dr. Jeckle brother would take years, not months, decades even, who knows, maybe forever.
“The offense will always have it over the defense.”
And there you go.
And here we are.
Omaha. Denver. Austin.
The United States of America, the Great Satan, the Spider in the center of the web of global capitalism, the source of black helicopters, men in black, socialized medicine, secret alien conquest, choose your paranoid fantasy, and here we are in the cross-hairs of your viral gunsight.
Poughkeepsie. Madison. Memphis.
We’re not in a war with anyone or anything.
We’re just targets in a shooting gallery where anyone can play and anyone who wants to can afford it.
The United States of American, the Great Satan, the Spider in the center of the web of global capitalism....
The city on the hill become like a Swiss cheese with new bubbles of pustulance popping up everywhere. There is no other honorable choice. Or for that matter even a dishonorable one.
Sooner or later, if we don’t quarantine the whole country ourselves, the rest of the world will.