A science fiction short story
Patrick J. Morris
Story and graphics © Copyright 1996, Patrick J. Morris, DVM
"Anastasia!" a young man in his late twenties shouted from the depths of the biohazard containment room. Staring down again at the x-ray film, Dr. Terry Michaels held his breath while he held up the blots one more time, fumbling through thick gloves as he tried to match up the spots that told a simply impossible story. Impossible, and yet in the many linear stains that were streaked out side by side were the sequence markers, the bands of human DNA lining up to reveal the unbelievable result.
"Good . . . God!" he whispered explosively as he released his breath, too numbed by the wild thoughts that flashed through his head to realize that he'd uttered the same phrase ten times in the last two minutes.
"Good God, Anastasia, where in the heck are you?" he shouted into the intercom.
From behind the three-tiered barrier of the highly infectious disease containment research corridor came an answer, a muffled intonation without words instantly recognizable as the voice of his trusty research assistant.
Michaels fumbled with the precious film through the thick, protective gloves that were part of the personal protective gear that was part of biohazardous investigations in the Ebola era. He finally rested the film on a clean table and punched the intercom with a trembling finger, noticing only then that he was sweating, out of breath, heart racing. "Anastasia! The films are done . . . I . . . can't believe it! I can't wait to . . . Good God, I don't believe this! Anastasia, are you ready to duplicate?"
"Yes, yes! The light is green. I take it you've found more matches?"
"More? Heck! They ALL match! Every one, right down to a . . . I don't know - a fraction of a percent! This is, well, it's just crazy! Ok, here it comes!"
Terry punched the intercom off again and fumbled with the film as it tried its best to misfeed into the insert slot of the film duplicator. "Good God, get in there!" he mumbled, realizing at long last that he had used that phrase several times in the last . . . however long he'd been in the facility. An uncomfortable sensation could be traced to his bladder. "How long have I been in here?" he wondered.
Finally the film disappeared into the duplicator and the green light winked success. Terry glanced once around the small lab to make sure all of the required biohazard containment precautions had been met before he backed into the ultraviolet sterilizer to start the biocontainment exit routine.
Terry flipped his hair back and ran his hand over his head in an effort to tame his uncooperative bangs. "Can you believe it?" he asked as he padded his hands dry with a towel.
"What I can't believe is that you'd come out here with nothing on but a towel!" Anastasia chuckled.
"Oh! Darn!" Terry mumbled as he ducked back into the locker room and dressed quickly, emerging with shoes and socks in hand. "I'm going down to Reuben's office. He's got to see this." Terry grabbed the envelope and raced out the door.
"But it's . . . " Anastasia started to yell but the door had swung to and the human streak of light had vanished. "It's Saturday, you big dope," she whispered softly.
Terry was halfway across the courtyard when he noticed several interesting and important facts. First, it had iced up since he arrived, and he was still in his bare feet. Hopping painfully over to a roofed bench, he quickly donned socks and shoes and focused on his second observation. There was no one on campus. He hit himself in the head several times as realization finally set in that it was the weekend. He glanced around for a moment then shot up and ran over to a nearby phone booth to make THE call. After an agonizing seven rings a familiar voice answered.
"Yes?" It was Jane, Reuben Carter's wife, or was it Jean? He could never remember her name. Come on, Michaels he silently chastised himself. After all, she was the chancellor of the college. Her name was on every pay check he drew from the general research fund, after all. Finally he opted to cough just after the "J."
"Oh, Terry. I'll get Reuben."
Terry uttered the slightest of sighs, the ploy had worked.
"And my name is Jean. It's on your checks for crying out loud Terry, you'd think you could remember."
"Uh, uh, sorry . . . Jean." Terry fumbled, hitting himself several times in the head. Maybe he'd finally beat her name into his thick skull.
"You're impossible, do you know that? Lucky for you I forgive easily, especially good researchers like you. Hold on now, I'll get Reuben."
"Thanks . . . Jean." He hit himself again. Not two microseconds had passed and he was already having trouble with the name again. He hit himself once more for good measure as he repeated her name "Jean, Jean, Jean."
"Terry, what in the heck are you mumbling about?" Reuben spat. He was obviously irritated at being bothered on his day off.
"Sorry, Reuben. I just got the last of the gels run. The compilation. I had to call you, I just had to. You won't believe what I've found!"
"I assume you've found some matches, how close are they?"
"Some! Reuben, they ALL match, every one! The prevalence is identical, all right at one ten-thousandth of a percent of the total population, and the error is less than one percent! It's absolutely . . . ." Terry had finally run out of breath and was forced to pause to suck in some air.
"That's absolutely incredible!" Came the knee-jerk response. "No, wait a minute Terry," Reuben said after cognizant powers regained control over his conscious. "No, no, no. That can't happen! You've contaminated the wells with the caucasian samples. The other samples are all negative and you've confounded the data! Really, I can't believe that you could be so easily. . . ."
"I loaded the Caucasian samples last just so that wouldn't happen. I used a fresh well, took it right out of the oven. This is not a lab mistake, it's . . . it's unbelievable, that's what it is."
"Now hold on, Terry. There is no way this could be real and you know it. For one thing the percentages can't all coincidentally be the same, that would be completely contradictory to a natural phenomenon. . . ."
"Exactly," Terry agreed.
"Well now just what are you saying?"
"I'm saying that when all other possibilities have been eliminated then what ever is left, no matter how impossible it seems, must be the truth. In this case the result is either the effect of some natural process or it isn't. And it isn't. So it's contrived. Somehow, it has been contrived."
"Good God!" Reuben muttered.
"That's what I said!" Terry replied. "In fact I think I said that a lot of times."
"Do you have the gel with you?"
"They're burning a hole in my hot little hands." Terry patted the envelope for emphasis, though of course Reuben would not be able to see the gesture.
"Where are you? It sounds like you're at a pay phone?"
"I'll be at University and State, under the covered bench. Where are we going?"
"Are you kidding? We're going to the telecom lab. I've got a line in to CDC. I'll call Russell and Tigras to let them know we have something, then I'll swing around and pick you up. Stay put, do you hear me?"
"I'll be here!
"This is unbelievable!" Russell said as he strained to get a closer look at the computer console. "You didn't contaminate the wells, did you?"
"The samples from Zaire and Switzerland went in last."
The two men at the other end of the line looked at each other in silence for a moment, then back at the teleconference terminal. "Well, I don't know what to say. The implications are . . . incredible to say the very least," Russell said as he rubbed at his chin. He sat back for a moment as if in thought, then cleared his throat and lowered his voice a notch. "Are there any other gels, any . . . duplicates?"
Terry looked at Reuben, shaking his head in the negative. "Only back in the P3 room. I didn't have time to make any more." Terry suppressed a frown. What kind of a question was that? Even with the low resolution of the fiber optics digitized image it was obvious that Tigras was beginning to sweat. Terry answered quickly, trying his best to avoid letting on his uneasiness. "I jammed right over as quick as I could. I knew you'd want to see these."
Russell cleared his throat again and spoke slowly. "But . . . someone would . . . have to run the duplicator . . . from the other side of the containment corridor."
"Yeah," Terry said slowly as he shot a quick glance over at Reuben, who only raised his eyes. Obviously he didn't know what they were getting at either. "My RA turned the duplicator on, then left. It is Saturday, you know."
"Yeah, right," Russell continued, rubbing his hand against the back of his neck. "So she left right after turning the duplicator on, you're sure?"
Terry and Reuben both glanced at each other in confusion. "Yes, I'm quite sure," Terry answered finally. "Why, what's going on here?"
Tigras poked his head in front of the camera and smiled, though his fingers trembled as he reached up to take a drag from his cigarette. "Look, it's just that this kind of information could cause a stir. Now that Ebola has shown up in Madagascar we have to be extremely careful about how we handle each new potential development. Hell, we're up to our ears with petitions and frightened senators as it is and heads are being lined up on the chopping block. The results open some disturbing questions and we just don't want to start a panic."
"But the results have nothing to do with any of that."
"I know, I know, Dr. Michaels. But think of how the public would interpret this. If it became common knowledge that some ten thousand idividuals of every race of human is somehow naturally immune to all Ebola strains . . . well, it would create complications that we just don't need."
Terry ran his hand over his head. "You're going to suppress the results, aren't you?"
"Now don't worry, Dr. Michaels," Tigras laughed dryly, obviously trying hard to be cheery, "I'm sure there's a Nobel Prize in here somewhere for you, but for now we're going to have to put a lid on this. You'll understand once you think about it a while."
Russell reached over and placed his copy of the results into a shredder, then finished with low, soft finality. "In the meantime the lab and all materials are to be secured. The gels, the film, all of the samples, everything. I'll send someone over right away to see to the details."
Terry sighed and shook his head in frustration. "Why did I ever go into infectious disease research?"
"Destiny." Russell said softly, his eyes were rivited to the camera, his face suddenly ashen. Tigras laughed again nervously before lighting another cigarette, his third.
Reuben frowned at the strange response then reached up to hit the cutoff switch but Russell waived a hand at them to catch their attention. "Uh, wait a minute, what did you say your RA's name was?"
"I didn't." Terry said, this time unable to hide a suspicious frown.
"It's just a formality," Russell replied reassuringly, pointing down to his pad of paper. "For the report."
"You shredded the report, remember?" Terry replied sarcastically. Russell merely sat, pen at pad, ready to write the name down. After a unnerving minute, Terry finally caved in. "Emily. Emily Travers. You can find her in the. . . ."
"Very well, then. That's all, I guess," Russell interrupted him. "We'll get that team out within the hour. Why don't you both meet them at the lab. The agent's name is Mitch Johnson. He'll brief you on procedures for . . . handling the data. Right, well guess that's all, then."
Terry's mouth was still open when the screen went blank. He looked at Reuben, who was frowning deeply.
"Emily Travers?" Reuben growled angrily.
"Oh, come on, Reuben," Terry spat as he slid the gel back into the folder. "The extremely thin veneer of normalcy here stinks of an Ian Fleming novel."
"Oh come on youself. Terry, that is ridiculous! How are we going to explain to them about your RA? What's her name, Ana. . . ."
"Shh!" Terry shushed loudly at Reuben as he grabbed his coat. "Let's get the hell out of here."
"Listen," Terry spoke softly into the phone, "when you get this I want you to pack some things and get out of your apartment. I can't explain, just trust me you've got to get lost. This thing has taken some kind of a weird twist and I'm afraid we've stumbled onto something that's too hot to handle. Don't go to a relative, a school mate, no one the Feds can trace from the past."
"Wait a minute, who are you calling?" Reuben asked nervously as he stepped into the office. "I don't think you're supposed to be talking to anyone."
"I was just checking my messages."
Reuben shook his head and pulled up a chair. He rubbed at his eyes for a moment and spoke in a sigh. "Look, there's no need for paranoia here. All they want is to prevent panic, for crying out loud. There's no conspiracy."
"Oh? So why the name? Why did they have to know the name of my RA tonight, huh? Why right now? It's so they could run her down and secure her as well. I'm not sure what's going on here but I'm getting the distinct feeling we found something that was meant to be unfindable. Darnit, I wish I'd never isolated the damned resistance locus in the first place!"
"So what do we do now?" Reuben asked, his voice began to crack with fear.
Terry grabbed the duplicate film and plopped it into the scanner then grabbed a diskette. Pointing to the floppy drive in the terminal across the room, he handed it to Reuben. "Here, put this in."
"What are you doing?" Reuben asked as he chewed nervously on a fingernail.
"Filling out an insurance policy," Terry snapped back as he flicked on the main computer.
"Just put it in."
Reuben walked slowly over to the terminal and inserted the diskette. After digitally clipping the images to weed out redundancies, Terry saved the essential data then flew across the room and yanked out of the diskette. Scribbling fiercely on the disk label Terry nodded over to the secretary's desk.
"Reuben, throw me one of those mailers."
Terry caught the mailer mid arc, threw the disk in and ran downstairs into the foyer. Looking around for any sign of observation he inserted the mailer into the bottom of a half-full student mailbox. Outside, the headlights of several vehicles bounced wildly in the evening mists. Someone pulled hurriedly into opposite sides of the parking lot to prevent any vehicles that might be attempting to pull away from the building from getting onto the surface street. The sound of keys rattling at the rear of the foyer confirmed his suspicion. Bounding up the stairs, he fled back up into the P3 facility office.
"They're here," Terry said blandly.
"Holy Mother of God," Reuben whispered back.
The sound of many footsteps echoed in the empty foyer as the procession wound slowly up the staircase and into the office. A tall, lanky man lead the group. His features were striking, angular, like a digitized computer image. The man strode calmly and confidently into the room and surveyed the surroundings quickly, using jerky movements, as if he were ticking off items on some mental checklist. He'd been in this kind of situation before.
"My name is Griffiths," he said as he finished his sweep of the room. "Rather bright in here, don't you think?" The man looked up at the ceiling lights and squinted as if the light hurt his eyes, then motioned to someone standing at the door. After the lights dimmed to a menacing twilight, he turned back and finished. "There, that's much better."
"Russell said our contact would be someone named Johnson," Terry said quickly, hoping somehow to impede the mounting terror within.
Griffiths ignored the remark and reached slowly into his coat pocket. Producing a small cassette tape, the agent tossed it onto the desk in front of Terry. It looked like the kind of cassette tape one put into an answering machine. "Anastasia won't be needing this anymore," he said softly. "She asked me to give it to you."
Terry swallowed hard before answering. "What . . . what did you do to her?"
Griffiths peered at him for a moment. The man's eyes were cold, bleak. And yet there was a strange, incongruous softness within them. "We're going to need the DNA samples you've got stored in the containment chamber. Would you mind getting them for me?"
"And if I refuse?"
"You won't refuse, Dr. Michaels. You see, you have uncovered something that is not supposed to exist. So, please, get suited and get me the DNA samples."
Reuben began backing up, his lip trembling as he looked around the room for a way out. Griffiths glanced over at one of the silent throng who were standing in the wings. The silhouette returned an acknowledging nod.
Terry started to walk toward Reuben to calm him, but Griffiths stood in his way.
"I'll take care of Dr. Reuben. Why don't you just worry about those DNA samples?"
"Don't hurt him, please!" Terry pleaded in a quivering voice as he pushed open the door to the suiting chamber. In the shadows he could see Reuben slumping over, being dragged slowly toward the main desk next to the entrance. "Please! What are you doing?"
"The samples, Dr. Michaels."
Instinctively Terry hurried into the anteroom and locked the door. He stared out the viewing window for a few seconds while he tried to catch his breath. Events were escalating exponentially from the comfort of normality into an insane version of a "Twighlight Zone" episode. All that was missing at this point was the cold, calm narrative that inaugurated each installment. After a few moments, he pulled himself together and spoke in a resigning sigh as he pulled out a helmet and sat it on the bench. "So, are you at least going to tell me just what it is I've uncovered?"
Griffiths lit a cigarette and sat down on the main desk. The smoldering butt lit his face with an evil, reddish illumination as he drew in a deep drag. He held it in for a moment, then exhaled slowly as he answered. "I will tell you this. With all that is happening in the world today, the human race is as close to extinction as it has ever been. Even in prehistoric times, when predation, disease, famine, and all of the other hazards that threaten existence nearly wiped us out, we have never been as close to the edge as we are right now." Terry zipped up his suit and pushed through the next door to hook up his air line while Griffiths continued his eerie narrative.
"As a scientist, you certainly realize this is so."
"Are you asking me?"
"I suppose I am, though whether you understand or not matters very little."
Terry punched in the air line and tested his gloves, trying his best to waste time. If the night guard came by, there still might be a chance to come out of this alive. "I understand our predicament, yes. So what, has the CDC been assigned the difficult and dirty job of putting an end to the problem?"
"I'm not an epidemiologist, Dr. Michaels. I'm not concerned with such things. All I know is that the answer to the problem is to cull the population."
"I understand the concept. It's just the application that has me a little concerned at the moment."
"Understandably so, doctor."
"So, an outbreak?"
"You appear to be enshrouded in a strange paradox, Dr. Michaels. It seems that you are going to be the sentinel case for the global spread of an Ebola epidemic that will actually save the human race from extinction. To the world it will appear as just another terrible accident. And it must appear to be an accident, at least initially."
"Why do you bother to explain this to me?" Terry asked with a puzzled frown. "I mean, why me, specifically, with all this melodramatic flare? You have plenty of help here, wouldn't it be easier to simply come in and get it yourself?"
The strange man returned a knowing smile, then answered calmly. "I am charged with maintaining this thread of history, Dr. Michaels. Trust me, there is no other way."
"Uh huh. Yes, I see now. Thank you for explaining that to me," Terry responded sarcastically. Looking down, Terry chuckled nervously as he tested his gloves again, more out of habit at this point than any serious concern for his safety. "Okay, so let's get back to your plan, then. There is an accident, an outbreak. That part at least is comprehensible. But what about the resistance gene? How was it inserted into the general populace without our knowledge? I mean, to derive and hide the technology required to pull this off must have been an immense operation."
"More than you can fathom," Griffiths whispered ominously.
"What in the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"To quote an old cliché, doctor, you wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"This entire thing is too fantastic to believe anyway, it really can't get too much wilder."
"Well, then, let me put it this way, Dr. Michaels. This project began in 1949, when the earth's atmosphere was seeded with two very special spores - fungal spores. One spore bore Ebola, and was delivered into a remote area of the Congo, there to establish a silent nidus of infection within a wildlife reservoir. Haven't you ever wondered about Ebola? About how strange the virus is? Not akin to any of the typical viruses that have plagued vertebrates for millenia, this organism appeared suddenly, and from out of nowhere. It has no known natural host, no known reservoir. It defies all viral biology as it pops up here and there with no detectable pattern and no definitive source. As for the other fungal spore, it carried a retrovirus with a very special gene that would impart resistance to any and all mutations of Ebola. Any human being inhaling the spore would be immune, and so would their progeny. In every case, the seeding took place in a remote area of the earth, targeting a very small but significant fraction of the human race."
Terry frowned through the glass plate that protected him from the unseen, aerosolized death that swarmed within the central chamber that lay only a doorstep away. "I don't get it, we didn't even have that kind of technology in 1949!"
"You are right of course, Dr. Michaels. It was the year we discovered our destiny. Destiny is a terrible thing, you know. It is a single path that leads through a multitude of dead ends. But however terrible, it is a truly . . . liberating experience, one that you will soon share."
Terry's mind raced as he struggled to answer the riddle. The presence of as yet undiscovered technology in 1949? Where did it come from? The world was just beginning the long, difficult task of recovery from a long and terrible war that had ended just as terribly as it had begun. Fear and paranoia were rampant. Nazis and communists were under every stone, not to mention a resurgence of fears of secret societies, unexplained phenomena, UFO's all over the skies. . .
Terry turned slowly away from the inner door as suspicion began to give way to understanding, as deduction and inference quickly sketched a picture of impossible proportion. "Roswell?"
"Close enough, doctor. We found something in the wreckage that opened the doors to another reality. It seems we are indeed the predecessors of a brave new world. And yet, it looks as though this utopic transition will come only after the human race and the Earth very narrowly escape disaster and extinction as human numbers grow to insane levels. Before the fear, the prejudice and the ignorance finally give way to understanding, a great many tragedies will take place. During the investigation at Roswell, your government stumbled upon a plan. A plan so terrible, so incomprehensible that all but a few who understood the cruel reality of the human situation could bear to face it. We are pawns in this, doctor. And this is the beauty of it all. You are free, doctor, spared the horrible responsibility of decision. And now you are beginning to realize why you will cooperate fully. The end and the beginning are coming as one. Now, if you don't mind, doctor, give me the samples. And while you're at it, if you could manage to stab yourself with a pipette from the vial marked Reston 9, we will leave you to your fate."
"And what is my fate?"
"We are told that the pandemic will begin with the discovery of the resistance gene, with the findings of your research project."
"Sounds a little too melodramatic to me. Besides, what makes you so sure I'm going to buy this? You could be just a . . . crazed fanatic trying to bring about the downfall of the United States government. And right now," Terry opened the door to the containment room and spread his arms out, "Right now I'm here and you're out there. From where I sit, I'm in charge now. The pandemic won't start with me," Terry mustered up as much fortitude as possible and motioned to a vial. "If anything, it'll start with you. You want the samples? Fine. Come in and get them." Terry sat down and stared at the man, trying his best to imitate the icy glare of his strange visitor.
The man smiled wryly, then took another drag from his cigarette. He cleared his throat and replied calmly, almost as if Terry's response was somehow expected. "You were born in Nogales, right?"
Terry chuckled softly, frowning incredulously. "Jeez, this is unreal! What in the hell does that have to do with anything?"
"The city of Nogales had - what? - five thousand people at the time you were growing up?"
"More like ten."
"What percent of the total human population is Nogales, doctor?"
Terry thought for a minute, then froze. The population of Nogales, Arizona, was roughly ten thousand. In a world population of 10 billion, the inhabitants of his native town represented very close to one ten thousandth of a percent of the total human population, the exact percentage of the population he himself had found to harbor the resistance gene. Terry looked up slowly at Griffiths, his eyes wide in utter disbelief.
"You never tested your own blood, did you, Dr. Michaels?"
Terry shook his head as he opened up the cell culture vial marked Reston 9 and inserted a micropipette into the well. "No. I never thought to test myself," Terry's response was more mechanical now than cognizant. It was as if he had suddenly become a stupid puppet in a futuristic version of Punch and Judy. "Will I even get sick?"
"Many years from now, history will show that the researcher who initiated the pandemic, one Terry Patrick Michaels, didn't even know he carried the virus. He will appear at a WHO conference on Ebola in New York City. Representatives from all over the planet will be in attendance. By the time the first case is diagnosed, the disease will have spread beyond containment. You are the focal point in continuing the history of mankind. You and a few others from all races will not suffer and die in the terrible viral storm that awaits the rest of us, yet, in a way you are the unlucky ones, Dr. Michaels."
"What?" Terry whispered as the glass tip pierced his glove. "Why?"
"History will also record that many lost their sanity in the aftermath. We are told that the stench of putrefying bodies will fill the air for years. That is your horrible destiny, Dr. Michaels. You, and those who survive with you, will toil in dumb labor to the end of your days burying the remains of ten billion humans, and you will know every face in your nightmares. In those times, I am told to remind you, look to the children for solace, for they are the fire that lights the path of our destiny."
Griffiths turned suddenly and motioned to his solemn cast. Reuben's body was hoisted and carried downstairs. When the rest of the group had left, Griffiths turned back toward Terry.
"Afterward, they will contact you, or so we have been told. I guess that's about it. I leave you at the crossroads, doctor."
Terry watched in numbed revelation as the tall gentleman disappeared down the spiral staircase into the vacant foyer below. Just before he ducked out of sight, he poked back up and raised his voice: "Oh, Dr. Michaels, I almost forgot. You will want to retrieve the diskette you stuffed into the mailbox down here. After all this is over it will be the only record you will have of your fantastic discovery. Unfortunately, the situation being what it is, I regret to inform you that you will not receive the Nobel Prize in medicine. I trust you won't be too disappointed."
Terry sucked unconsciously at the small puncture in his thumb as he scanned through the latest issue of the CDC Morbidity/Mortality Weekly Report, circling the announcement of the third annual WHO conference on biology of hemorrhagic viruses. From the description, it looked as thought it would be a large conference, with representatives from every corner of the globe. A good opportunity for a young, up-and-coming researcher to meet and influence his peers in the scientific community.