Author: David Barber

Like nuclear weapons before them, the plagues each side kept hidden were too terrible to use; instead they waged sly wars of colds and coughs, infectious agents sneezed in trams and crowded lifts, blighting commerce with working days lost to fevers and sickness; secret attacks hard to prove and impossible to stop.

This time the letter from his fictitious pen-pal in Germany is written with black ink and in capitals. Warned, he does not open it but goes down to the basement.

Donning mask and gloves, he switches on the fan that draws air into the biohazard cabinet. Carefully slitting the envelope he discards the letter; it is the pinch of viral dust in one corner that he taps out into a broth of Bacillus subtilis.

Such a pleasing concept, like binary nerve agents or sub-critical hemispheres of plutonium; not lethal until brought together. The bacteria was common enough and harmless, until reprogrammed by this smuggled virus.

After incubating the bacterial culture for 48 hours, he would add a gelling agent and then smear it on door handles, lift buttons, supermarket trolleys and keypads of ATM’s across the city.

He would be patient zero, but he was a patriot and believed in his sacrifice, whatever that might be.

Later, when he goes out to his car, they fell him with a taser without any warning.

“You’re under arrest,” someone snaps, as a needle stings his neck and darkness takes him.

He wakes in a biosecure room.

A previous suspect had a capsule implanted beneath the skin of her inner arm. When popped, it released a geneered hemorrhagic virus into her bloodstream, like Ebola but airborne. Her first hacking coughs had infected the interrogation team, then the whole building.

Although he’d been scanned and minutely searched while unconscious, they were taking no chances and his interrogators watch from behind armoured glass.

“How did you catch me?”

They ignore this. “Tell us about the virus.”

He knows nothing of the epidemic he would have unleashed. His ignorance is deliberate, so that however brutally questioned, he has nothing to confess. This was understood. It was all part of the game.

But they persist. Was it the modified polio virus? The same one the others in his cell possessed?

“It’s being sequenced, so you might as well tell us.”

“There are no spy cells. We work alone, you know that.”

“Why this escalation from respiratory infections?”

He shrugs, but is happy to speculate. If he cooperates perhaps they will spare him, though he doubts it. The bleak truth is that his own side had already sacrificed him.

“I’m guessing this new virus isn’t designed to kill. They just want to overwhelm your medical services, to tie up resources with the long term sick. Do you remember those pictures of halls filled with iron lungs?”

He has no suicide capsule because all he knows are the names of handlers and trainers long since retired or dead. He had lived here now for sixteen years.

“They’re struggling to keep up with you,” he muses. “You encourage your researchers to be creative. It is your strength. What were we to make of outbreaks of contagious impotence, that epidemic of muteness, and wasn’t there amnesic flu?”

They stare at one another through the glass.

Such innocent times, before psychiatry was weaponized. Armies afraid to go outside; the compulsive counting virus; whole cities too sad to go on; scientists infecting themselves
with psychopathies so they would not be hindered by conscience.