PANDORA: Outbreak by Eric L. Harry
Genre: Science Fiction – pandemic Pub Date: 1/23/2018
They call it Pandoravirus. It attacks the brain. Anyone infected may explode in uncontrollable rage. Blind to pain, empty of emotion, the infected hunt and are hunted. They attack without warning and without mercy. Their numbers spread unchecked. There is no known cure.
Emma Miller studies diseases for a living—until she catches the virus. Now she’s the one being studied by the U.S. government and by her twin sister, neuroscientist Isabel Miller. Rival factions debate whether to treat the infected like rabid animals to be put down, or victims deserving compassion. As Isabel fights for her sister's life, the infected are massing for an epic battle of survival. And it looks like Emma is leading the way . . .
“Feel like talking?” asked Hermann. He was a social anthropologist on Surge Team One who studied behaviors that caused diseases to spread, like shaking hands, unprotected sex, or ritual preparation of the dead; or that inhibited their spread like handwashing and social isolation. He was in his late thirties and handsome enough. He had twice hit on Emma, and twice failed. Too much alcohol and pot on his first try, and on the second neither had showered for days in The Congo during a now prosaic seeming Ebola outbreak. Happier times. Would he soon watch her writhe naked in this plastic cage as some parasite, now rapidly reproducing inside her, gnawed away on her brain?
“Love to chat,” she replied. The haze of narcotics was lifting. “SED has to be more contagious than any pathogen we’ve ever seen. Infection without coughing, sneezing mucal catastrophes? Droplet nuclei in distal airways? Sub-five microns? So it’s viral?”
“It’s archaic, and we think it was probably highly evolved back when it was frozen,” Hermann said. “It didn’t randomly mutate, spill over into us from some distant species and barely survive. It thrives in us. If you ask me, it evolved specifically to infect humans. It’s perfectly adapted to us. It just needed contact, which it got when the permafrost was disrupted, and boom. It’s off and running.” Oh God, oh God, she thought. But she mustered the strength to shout, “So if it had no animal reservoir, why the fuck am I even here?”
“We collected wildlife specimens for you to examine,” Hermann explained. “Just to be certain. If it turns out there aren’t any intermediate hosts or transmission amplifiers—if humans are the only reservoir—we may still beat this one, like smallpox or polio.”
“What’s the R-nought?” Emma asked.
R0, pronounced “R-nought,” was a disease’s basic reproduction rate. How many people in a susceptible population, on average, will one sick person infect? An R0 of less than one meant the pathogen was not very infectious and its outbreaks should burn out. But an R0 greater than one was an epidemic threat, and the higher the R0, the more infectious. Touch a door knob a few minutes after a high- R0 carrier, then rub your eye or brush a crumb from your lips and you auto-inoculate, injecting the pathogen into yourself.
But Travkin had only breathed on Emma, briefly, from a few feet away.
“What’s the R-nought, Hermann?” she persisted.
“High. Higher than the Black Death, smallpox, the Spanish Flu, polio, AIDS. We may have found The Next Big One.” Oh-my-God! Heavy chains bound Emma to a dreadful fate. She again curled into a fetal ball. “Or The Next Big One found us,” she muttered.
At his laptop, Hermann asked, “Emma, could you list the emotions you’re feeling?”
“Emotions? Seriously? Uhm, well, scared out of my fucking wits would be number one on my list.”
“Anything else?” he asked.
“Really!” Emma sat up. “You’re interviewing me?” That really pissed her off! She shook the thermometer from her finger and yanked the blood pressure cuff off. The soldiers at the hatch raised their rifles. The short medic radioed the doctor, who burst out of the autopsy lab as Emma carefully removed her IV just ahead of a rush of euphoria. They had injected a sedative remotely into the tube that led into her veins, but she’d been too quick. Her head spun only once. “What the fuck?” she shouted. “You tried to knock me out?”
“Dr. Miller,” the French doctor replied, “you need that IV.”
“Bullshit!” Emma snapped. “If antibiotics worked, we wouldn’t be here.”
“You’re also getting antivirals, antiprotozoals, and fluids.” Emma stared with sudden clarity through the walls’ distorted optics like at survivors of some post-apocalyptic hell. She was free. It was the people outside her plastic shelter, from those garbed head-to-toe in PPE, to everyone on Earth beyond, who now needed to cower in fear – not her.
Emma knew the feeling of spending hours in personal protective equipment. Knock headgear aside, you’re dead. Prick a finger capping a syringe, dead. Tear gloves disrobing, dead. You get antsy. It’s the uninfected who were visitors to this hostile new world.
“So Hermann,” she said, “parasites follow Darwin’s law. What adaptive advantage do big black pupils give SED’s pathogen?”
“It could allow the infected to identify each other,” Hermann ventured. He’d obviously already thought that one up.
“Why? So they,”--or is it we?—“can . . . build human pyramids to top our walls?”
“Natural selection doesn’t have a purpose, only results.”
“Good one. Level with me, Hermann. Did I catch it? I can’t wait hours.”
“It may be sooner. Leskov had a head cold. His immune system was weakened. His fever appeared at forty-four minutes. Have you been sick recently?”
“No.” So Hermann wasn’t there as a friend. He’d been with the others too. Interviewed them too. “How can it possibly reproduce so quickly?” she asked.
“A high reproductive rate is one reason SED seems highly evolved and perfectly adapted to humans. I’m telling you. It evolved to use us, its hosts, to aid its spread. This brain damage isn’t random, it’s . . .” The doctor chided him in French, pointing at Emma, who cried and shivered in fear. “I’m sorry, Emma,” Hermann said. “I’m very sorry. If you’d allow monitoring, you’d know sooner.”
“Would you even tell me if the readouts show a temperature spike?” Before he could protest, Emma asked, “What was it like when Travkin went through it?”
“When you turn, you’ll get. . . . He got very ill.” Hermann’s verbal misstep hit Emma like a body blow. She closed her eyes. She was infected. Of course she was. Look at how they’re fucking treating me! “Physical distress, memory deficits, possibly anterograde amnesia. Deficits in social cognition.” Then he again said, “Sooo, I’ve got some questions?”
“What, fill in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil? ‘On a scale of one to five, how much do you wanta murder me right now?’ Then some ghoul in there saws open my cranium and takes cross-sections!”
“Emma, the pathologist in there is Pieter Groenewalt,” pronouncing it, “Gryoo-neh-vahl-t” with a hard German “t” even though the South African Anglicized his name. “You remember him and his wife. He’s bitching that he isn’t allowed on this side of the isolation barrier to see the infected—alive. But all the data is being rigidly compartmentalized.”
Emma no longer cared about Groenewalt, his petty frustrations or their mission’s data security rules, or felt any part of Hermann’s world. She was Shrödinger’s freakin’ cat—maybe dead, maybe demented. Over the next hour and a half, as Emma monitored every sensation she felt plus many more imagined, Hermann talked a lot, adding small scary details to the important terrifying facts about SED. She spoke very little, mostly silently recalling the milestones of her too short life to date.
The clock passed two hours. Nothing. But a few minutes later, her head swam as if the world rotated beneath her, then it was gone. Not so the panic. Her chest clutched at her breath, forcing her to inhale deeply to break its hold. A prickly sweat burst out all over. But that was the anxiety. Wait. Wait. Wait.
Emma threw up without warning. It shocked her. The short medic entered—keeping his distance, eyeing her warily—and cleaned up the mess with a sprayer/vacuum on his pool-boy pole. Emma was shivering. They raised the thermostat. Minutes later, she was sweating. They lowered it. Tears of the inevitable flowed. She was sick. Mommy? Daddy? Help me!
“Emma? Can I ask you a few . . .?”
“Why?” she finally shouted, pounding the plastic flooring with both fists. She had tried to deny her churning stomach, waves of dizziness, and deep fatigue. But at 2:13:25, she admitted the worst. Flushed and clammy, she broke down and sobbed.
“Let us help,” the doctor pled. The tall medic sank to his knees and crossed himself.
“Bring it all back,” Emma mumbled. The medics entered and reinserted the IV and reattached the blood pressure cuff and thermometer. “I have a brother,” Emma said to Hermann as they worked on her. “Noah Miller, a lawyer in McLean, Virginia. And a twin sister, Isabel, a professor at UCSB. I want them notified.” Hermann suggested she relax and keep calm. “I want them warned! You tell them what’s coming and to get ready, get ready, you understand, and I’ll answer anything. I’ll cooperate. Noah and Isabel Miller!” Emma shouted, sobbing. “They’re all I’ve got! They’re all I’ve . . .”
Hermann gave her a single nod, unnoticed by the others. She didn’t trust him, but it would have to do. Calmness flowed into her veins. She closed her throbbing eyes.
Raised in a small town in Mississippi, Eric L. Harry graduated from the Marine Military Academy in Texas and studied Russian and Economics at Vanderbilt University, where he also got a J.D. and M.B.A. In addition, he studied in Moscow and Leningrad in the USSR, and at the University of Virginia Law School. He began his legal career in private practice in Houston, negotiated complex multinational mergers and acquisitions around the world, and rose to be general counsel of a Fortune 500 company. He left to raise a private equity fund and co-found a successful oil company. His previous thrillers include Arc Light, Society of the Mind, ProtectandDefend and Invasion. His books have been published in eight countries. He and his wife have three children and divide their time between Houston and San Diego.
In my new Pandora book series, I challenged myself to create a medically and scientifically plausible “zombie novel.” In it, an airborne pathogen, Pandoravirus, causes brain damage in its victims. They don’t die and reanimate, but they are frighteningly dangerous both because they carry the highly contagious virus (you can catch it from just breathing contaminated air exhaled by carriers) and because Infecteds will kill you for little or no reason.
Detecting Pandoravirus carriers is easy for the first two weeks after infection. Their pupils “pop” – their irises dilate, like after a visit to the eye doctor – due to mydriasis after the massive damage done to their brains. After about two weeks, however, the mydriasis resolves, and they look normal. Thereafter, to detect Infecteds you need behavioral tests like the Turing test for artificially intelligent computers (or the Voight-Kampff Empathy Test in Do Androids Dream . . ./Blade Runner).
Here’s a checklist: Does the suspected carrier have trouble with first person pronouns? Their sense of “self” has been destroyed, and they may be confused when someone refers to them as “you” until they grow more facile with the use of language. Do they exhibit signs of excessive anxiety like muscle tension and fist clenching? That may indicate an uncontrolled release of adrenaline, which could suggest an impending adrenal rage. (Now might be a good time to terminate the interview.) Does the subject seem paranoid, possibly thinking you to be a dangerous imposter, not a friend? That delusion severs any emotional ties the two of you might have had before infection. (Again, remain near an exit.) Does a person you fear might be an Infected, when shown a forest, seem only to see individual trees and not the whole? That single-minded focus can lead them to pursue you, and only you, obsessively, through the chaos and violence until, well . . . Also, does the suspicious person seem to suffer from a complete absence of empathy and a total lack of social bonding? Can they, for instance, calmly answer questions while in the presence of a dead loved one? Mirror neurons help make us human; their absence can make us remorseless and inhumane. Finally there’s pain, or more accurately the lack thereof, that is the last tell. No need to explore the myriad ways that can be utilized to detect Pandoravirus in its victims.
Oh, and if you happen upon a large and dense crowd, which appears strangely impassive, silent, stoic, and patient, and there are no obvious subgroups or signs of demonstration or demands, and especially if they all face in the same direction – worse yet in your direction – they’re called “charged” and are awaiting only a trigger. I wouldn’t interview anyone there, and I wouldn’t stop running until you can’t run any farther.