It’s All Hallow’s Eve Eve, so this week’s Flash Fiction Challenge of course involves horror. Inspired by the fact that Ebola hysteria is running rampant through the mainstream media and the halls of government, our assignment is to write a horror story involving some sort of disease.
This might not have turned out as well as I wanted — too serious to be slapstick, trying too hard for a punchline to be horror. But the dozen political calls a day and hundreds of TV ads every day may be having an effect on my brain.
THE PEOPLE’S PLAGUE
“We have another one, ma’am. This report just came in from Phoenix.”
Doctor Helen Fletcher, the CDC’s lead investigator, looked at the window that popped up on her console, attached to a pin dropped on the map in Arizona. Ten cases already there, along with all of the other boxes and pins displayed all over the country. Thousands of cases nationwide and spreading like wildfire.
“We’re running out of time to get this under control,” she said to the row of faces shown in the small boxes lining the bottom of her computer screen.
“Doctor Fletcher,” the Midwest section head said, “it’s too early to even tell if it’s airborne or not. We’re going to need at least a couple of days to determine the distribution vector.”
“You do all realize this is an attack, not a disease, don’t you?” A new window had opened up, with the medical liaison to the FBI shown. “Look at the pattern that’s showing up. The first cases were seen in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, and Chicago, but now it’s popping up everywhere overnight. Boston, Atlanta, Denver, Indianapolis, now Phoenix. But also Trenton, Hartford, Nashville, Richmond. Can’t any of you see what that means?”
There was a pause while all of the medical experts tried looking at their data for a pattern they had missed so far. Most of them had been awake for the better part of seventy-two hours and were function solely on caffeine and adrenaline.
“What are we missing? I don’t see it,” Doctor Fletcher said. “It looks like it’s spread all over the country at random. They’re all metropolitan areas, but there’s no obvious vector based on wind, weather, animal population, food distribution, or transportation routes.”
“Another report coming in,” said the sergeant. “Juneau, eight cases suspected.”
“How in hell did it jump so fast to Alaska?” asked the CDC director for the Pacific Northwest. “That can’t be natural, it’s got to be based on travel, some agent introduced into the air transportation fleet somehow, or…”
“Stop it!” shouted the FBI agent. “Did any of you study anything other than biology in high school?”
“State capitals,” said the CDC Southwest director. “With the exception of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, they’re all state capitals.”
“Exactly,” said the FBI agent. “This is an attack on the government of the United States. I’m going to be briefing the President on this in ten minutes. What else can I tell him?”
“If it’s an attack on the government with a biological agent,” asked Southwest, “wouldn’t it be aimed at the people who run the government, the politicians themselves and their staffs? Do any of the infected fit that profile?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” said Doctor Fletcher, “we certainly would have heard if any of the infected were governors, Senators, or Members of Congress.” She gestured to one of her aides hovering behind her. “Start checking on who the infected people are, what they do, where they work.”
A new window opened up on the conference call screen, showing columns of data including names, location, age, sex, religion, and occupation. Data fields started to populate the chart, seemingly at random.
“Lawyers, advertising, film editors, clerical workers, computer programmers, graphic designers, sound engineers, CPAs – it seems random.”
“Wait, it’s not what we see, it’s what we don’t see,” said the FBI agent. “There aren’t any housewives, any unemployed, any students, or any children. I want to see something. Can you show just the people in the cities that are not state capitals, and also show the company they work for?”
The data once again shifted and shuffled and finally pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. The data for the infected patients began to clump into groups with multiple data records showing people working together at the same companies.
“Does anyone recognize any of these companies?” asked the FBI agent. “Can we see a couple of their web pages real quickly?” The new windows popped open. “See, they’re all related to advertising in some way. Most are ad agencies or production companies for television or radio. A few are printers. Now, let’s look at a couple of the state capitals.”
The data set expanded, to include the infected patient data for five of the smaller cities.
“There’s your link. It’s an election year. I’ll bet when we dig deeper, every one of these people is involved in some way with a political campaign.”
“Doctor Fletcher,” said Mid-Atlantic, “we’re just getting word from Annapolis and Richmond that new cases include a couple of state politicians and candidates.”
“Same here,” said Northwest. “We’re taking a closer look at the data for patients in Salem and Boise, and some of them are state legislators.”
“Okay, I’m going to go brief the President,” said the FBI agent. “Am I correct that so far there have been no fatalities or permanent disabilities?”
“You are correct, no fatalities,” said Doctor Fletcher. “It’s too early to tell about long term disabilities, and given this new information, we might have to reassess how we use that term.”
“Please clarify that for me and do it quickly, the President’s waiting.”
“The symptoms we’ve been concentrating on were the fever, dehydration, convulsions, and unexplained breathing difficulties. But there have been other symptoms reported which we’ve discounted, assuming they were side effects of the fever, perhaps delusions or hallucinations. We need to reevaluate that.”
“We’ve had reports the convulsions and breathing difficulties were experienced specifically when people tried to lie. The more egregious the lie, the more severe the symptoms appear to be.”
“You don’t mean…”
“Yes, I do. This might be an engineered virus which forces the victims to tell the truth or suffer horribly. And it’s targeting politicians.”
There was stunned silence across the conference call.
“Alright, I’ve got to go,” said the FBI agent. “I’ll get people at my end started on tracking down the terrorist monsters that might have done this.”
“’Monsters’? Don’t you mean ‘geniuses’?” Doctor Fletcher muttered under her breath.
“Say again, Doctor?”
“Nothing. We’re on it.”