Virus Thirteen by Joshua Alan Parry is a medical thriller set in the very near future (available March 26, 2013).
Scientists James Logan and his wife, Linda, have their dream careers at the world’s leading biotech company, GeneFirm, Inc. But their happiness is interrupted by a devastating bioterrorist attack: a deadly superflu that quickly becomes a global pandemic. The GeneFirm complex goes into lockdown and Linda’s research team is sent to high-security underground labs to develop a vaccine.
Above ground, James learns that GeneFirm security has been breached and Linda is in danger. To save her he must confront a desperate terrorist, armed government agents, and an invisible killer: Virus Thirteen.
For Dr. James Logan, it was not just another painfully dull lecture on his latest research. Today he was announcing a breakthrough that would change the world. After nearly a decade of work, James and his wife, Linda, had finally done it. The couple stood in the shadows just left of the stage. They both stared absently at the podium, the glare of lights shining down onto it like an alien tractor beam. The audience was buzzing; hundreds of reporters, students, and scientists had packed themselves into the auditorium.
Without warning, a small man appeared at their side. The man had a professorial bush of a mustache that waved in an absent wind as he talked.
“Are you two ready?”
James nodded and squeezed his wife’s hand.
The man nodded and brushed by him, trotting out into the blinding sea of light. The mass of humanity hushed as he began to speak.
“Ladies and gentlemen. First of all, just let me say that we are honored that GeneFirm chose the University of Texas to come and present their new medical breakthrough. We hope in the future that this university can continue to work with GeneFirm in the research and development of new cures and therapies. Now it is my plea sure to present Dr. James Logan and Dr. Linda Nguyen, the husband and wife team who head the gene therapy department at GeneFirm Incorporated, the largest and most esteemed biotech company in the world. Interestingly, James and Linda were both children of GeneFirm scientists, both engineered and raised on GeneFirm’s massive research facility west of the city. They went on to earn their doctorates from the University of Texas before moving back to GeneFirm to start their careers. The two of them have authored dozens of papers on gene therapy and are among the brightest rising stars in our scientific community. So without further ado, I present to you Dr. Logan and Dr. Nguyen.”
James gave one last squeeze to his wife’s hand as they stepped into the haze of the auditorium lights. James stood six feet tall with a slim, yet muscular build. Linda was almost the same height in her high heels, her skin tone a wonderful brown next to the stark whiteness of her husband.
James stopped in front of the microphone. He looked out over the crowd with pleasure, barely able to contain the excitement coursing through him.
“Good morning and welcome. Thank you all for being here. We are very excited to share our research with you today; however, before that I would like to start off this morning with a little history lesson for the students in the audience.
“In terms of preventable deaths, the cure for cancer has been one of the single greatest medical discoveries in human history, perhaps only surpassed by the creation of the vaccine by Edward Jenner. While the development of the smallpox vaccine can be accredited to our bovine friends and the cowpox virus that afflicted them, the cure for cancer originated in a remarkable parasitic trematode isolated from the Ganges River. The Ganges was quite possibly the most polluted river on the planet at that time. It is ironic that the toxic environment mankind created, which increased the incidence of cancer in the first place, eventually became so carcinogenic that it led to a cure, a mutation-resistant flatworm called Schistoma immortalitas. From this parasite, Dr. Weisman, the founder of GeneFirm, managed to isolate a group of genes that had paradoxically mutated the ability to resist further mutation. By inserting the flatworm’s mutation-resistant genes into humans, he was able to create a strain impervious to carcinogens and random mutations. In other words, he created a human genotype that was effectively cancer proof.”
James was speaking of the original Dr. Weisman, somewhat of a godhead among the people of Gene-Firm. Dr. Weisman had been dead for quite some time now. Dr. Weisman II was currently the CEO of GeneFirm. But no one ever mentioned “II” to his face. This would not be very politically correct. To call a clone “the second” or “number two” was a slur of sorts, since most of them didn’t gravitate toward the idea of not being unique individuals. Apparently it was very much a part of human nature to want to be an original. It was no wonder that most of the clones, created back when it was still legal, were inevitably prescribed a mood stabilizer, antidepressant, or some other cheery combination of psychiatric medications.
James swept his hand out. “Of course there is controversy shrouding all of this. This great leap in disease prevention has resulted in a crippling overpopulation of our planet. Many complain that eliminating cancer has made humanity unsustainable. But I ask you this: how could it be ethical to do anything else? As a doctor, if you have a treatment that is effective, how can you not use it? The Hippocratic oath says that above all else we must do no harm. So to answer the critics, I argue that it would be absolutely amoral to consciously let a child be born today with the potential to develop cancer, or any disease for that matter. Our goal for the future should be to limit the birthrate and develop more sustainable ways of living, not to limit medical treatment. You cannot stop the progress of man.”
James paused. Out of the blue, he was beginning to feel light-headed. He had been having episodes like this for the last couple months; he had always been in perfect health, so he didn’t quite know what to make of it. Looking down, he was puzzled to see that his hands were flushed bright red. James wobbled for a moment at the podium; an awkward silence was fast falling over the room.
Linda quickly pushed by her husband, replacing him at the microphone. She flashed a brief look of concern in his direction. Not wanting the moment to be ruined, she cleared her throat and continued.
“Unfortunately these cancer-proof genes, in each and every one of us, are not inheritable, meaning that the genes must be inserted into the embryo and then the embryo implanted back into the mother. This has not only proven to be very costly for our health care system, but it also leaves room for people to fall through the cracks. For instance, those individuals who freely conceive— illegally—without cancer-proof engineering, or those who do not have access to conception engineering in third world countries. For de cades, GeneFirm has been trying to develop a way to make the cancer-proof genes easily deliverable and inheritable.”
James was having trouble hearing the words coming out of Linda’s mouth. Her voice soon disappeared completely, leaving only a buzzing in his ears. The room was also getting extraordinarily hot. With one hand he loosened his tie, which at the moment seemed to be constricting around his neck like a python. He gulped painfully, his mouth dry. Breathing was becoming a chore.
At the podium, Linda continued talking, unaware of what was unfolding behind her. She never saw her husband begin to sway back and forth.
“Well, that is all about to change. I am excited to tell you that our research has led to an incredible breakthrough: the creation of a viral vector that can deliver the cancer-proof genes to an individual and make them a permanent fixture. I’m talking about a set of inheritable cancer-proof genes that can be delivered through a simple injection. This will revolutionize the world. From the largest cities to the most remote and poverty-stricken areas, we now have a permanent cure for cancer—a cure for everyone.”
Linda’s chest puffed up in pride. She addressed the audience confidently, “Now we’ll take questions.”
There were hundreds of questions, but none of them were answered. James toppled to the floor behind Linda and began to shake, his head slapping the ground again and again like a freshly landed fish gasping for air.
As the airplane banked sharply to the left, the captain’s voice came on over the intercom announcing their imminent landing. A man in a window seat looked out over the American landscape beneath him with a scowl. Where once there was a grand expanse of green, there were now only concrete plains. Throngs of cars choked the roadways— boxy machines crawling everywhere like an army of mindless ants. Flying over cities during the day always depressed him. At night it was a different story, when the sun disappeared leaving only the sterile glow of city lights, transforming the ground below into a mirror image of the space above. But during the day there was little beauty about the city. Just filth. Like a termite mound made of bug spit and wood shavings, standing ugly against the horizon. It was the final flight of his long trip. In the last couple weeks the man had circumnavigated the globe like a space-age Magellan. But it was the same story everywhere he went: overpopulation, crime, infrastructure decay, and smog so thick it stained your teeth.
Unfortunately this last flight had been disturbed by a small child in the seat next to him. Three? Four? Not old enough to show any common decency. The child had been busy playing some obnoxiously loud video game on his father’s phone for the last couple hours. The game involved a cartoon polar bear on some kind of gluttonous seal binge, mauling gun-toting humans along the way. The irritating growls, pings, and chimes of the game grated against the businessman’s nerves, like an ice pick to his forehead. The child’s father, sitting in the aisle seat, was busy snoring loudly.
He thought now was as good a time as ever. Out of his suit jacket he produced a tiny plastic spray bottle. There was only a tiny bit of fluid left inside; enough for one more dose, he hoped. He stared down at the child slapping the buttons on his asinine game. The child eventually tilted his head upward and the two locked eyes.
Without warning, the man sprayed the kid in the face. The child’s head recoiled, his features contorting as the mist met skin. To the man’s disbelief, the kid seemed completely unfazed by the event, returning without comment to his video game, the sounds returning once again to shred what was left of the man’s waning patience.
“Stupid fucking kid,” he whispered, “turn that off.”
The bottle remerged from the man’s coat. This time he did his best to spray the mist directly into the boy’s eyes.
This time the boy started crying and rubbing his eyes furiously. That’s better, thought the man. He lay his head back and closed his eyes.
To his relief, the stewardess’ voice crackled again from the intercom: “Please make sure your tray tables and seats are in the upright position and that your seat belts are fastened as we prepare to land. The weather on the ground is sunny and sweltering with a high of 110 degrees. Welcome to Austin, Texas.”
An intimidating black car with two equally intimidating men cruised down a busy street in Austin, Texas. Passersby could tell this was a government car by the crest on the door panels— the distinct insignia of the Department of Homeland Health Care, by far one of the most loathed and feared branches of the bloated bureaucracy that was their federal government.
“So who are we paying a visit to?”
“The guy’s name is Pat Henderson. Another porker. On his last checkup the doctor signed him up for a health retreat but he never showed. So now we got a warrant to assist him in making the next one.” Agent Macdonald gave a big toothy grin. “I know he would just hate to miss it.”
Agent Marnoy attempted to acknowledge Mac’s humor, but all that showed was a thin sneer in the corner of his mouth.
“Oh, come on, Marnoy, don’t try to smile so hard, you might hurt yourself.”
Marnoy was a brutish-looking man with the kind of crookedly angled nose that can only be formed via repeated blows to the face. Throughout life he had taken plenty of these, both literal and metaphorical. Marnoy’s mother had been a giant black Amazon of a woman, while his father was a stocky Jewish bodybuilder. It had been a difficult childhood, to say the least. With life being so unkind to him, at the age of thirty Marnoy was the human equivalent of a prized pit bull, kicked and bit his entire existence. He had grown into a man eager to lunge at the throat and hold on until life had paid him its due.
Agent Macdonald, on the other hand, was a lighthearted man and about as fat as you could legally get under Homeland regulations. Underneath his nose lounged a lazy caterpillar of a mustache. He looked more like an Italian chef than an agent of the government. Phenotypically at least, he had missed his calling. The man should have been working around checkered tablecloths and spitting out little clichés like, “you like my tasty meatballs?”
Marnoy scowled, “This is what it has come down to, Mac. I have a lifetime of chasing down the obese ahead of me.”
“Hey! This is my job, too, man. Don’t go bashing it. It’s not so bad.”
“Yes it is.”
“What ever. Listen buddy, you’ll eventually get that promotion. You were born to move up the ranks, I promise you. You’re working your ass off and it’s going to pay off. Plus, it’s not like this is the job that I thought I would be doing either, but you don’t see me complaining. I never thought for an instant that I would end up blowing out my rotator cuff and not going pro.” After a pause he added, “I guess I had some clue. I was never that good at baseball!” Mac chuckled to himself. “But look at me now. My wife and I bought a house and filled it with dogs, cats, and kids. All that happily ever after kinda shit. It will happen to you one day, buddy, if you’re not careful.”
The fact that Mac found humor in every aspect of life annoyed Marnoy to the point that he felt like swerving the car into oncoming traffic. Humor had a tendency of hitting him like water on summer asphalt, instantly turning to steam.
“But that’s just life, my friend. Our job isn’t that bad; hell it’s even fun sometimes. We just have to have the strength to accept the things we can’t change.”
“Isn’t that the motto for Alcoholics Anonymous?”
“So I used to drink too much— sue me.” Mac laughed again. “It’s still a good motto.”
Conversations with Mac were always useless, thought Marnoy; the man was filled with an endless barrage of positivity and bad jokes.
Something caught the corner of Marnoy’s eye.
“Oh, hell no!” Marnoy screamed and slammed on the brakes, turning the wheel hard while making a complete U-turn, tires squealing.
Completely unprepared for the force of the sharp turn, Mac was thrown against his door. “What’s the deal, man?”
Marnoy ignored him and accelerated, taking a sharp turn into an alleyway before coming to a screeching halt in front of four terrified teenagers. A lanky boy in the middle stared wide-eyed at the car, frozen solid with a cigarette dangling limply between his thin lips. The front fender of the car was inches away from his shins.
“Dude. Come on. You almost gave me a heart attack. Thought you saw a terrorist or something.”
“Game time!” Marnoy shouted as he jumped out of the car. It was moments like these that provided a rare spark of enjoyment in the dark moldy mass of his heart.
Mac smiled, the initial shock wearing off. He barked out, “Game time indeed!” By the time he was out of the car, Marnoy was already shouting at the teens and waving his gun.
“Get on the ground!”
All four of the stunned kids instantly hit the pavement. Marnoy fed off the fear in their faces.
“Where the hell did you get it?”
“Get wha— what?” cried one of the kids.
“Don’t play with me. Where did you get the cigarette?”
“I found it on the ground, man. I’ve never seen one before. Please, it’s not ours!”
Mac whistled as he leaned up against the hood of the car. “Wrong answer. He won’t like that.”
Marnoy was now kneeling next to the kid, screaming in his ear, “Where did you get this? Cigarettes are illegal! You want to go to jail? You wanna go to a health retreat?”
The lanky kid who had been smoking was crying buckets, his tears creating two dark spots where his eyes were pressed against the cement.
“Told you he wasn’t going to like that,” said Mac. “Listen kids, I would just tell the guy— he’s a very angry man, and frankly a little unstable. He didn’t get enough hugs as a kid. But I think you figured that one out already.”
The cigarette the kid had been smoking was smoldering nearby. Marnoy bent over and picked it up. He held it up to the face of the crying boy.
“You know what this does to you? This will fucking kill you! I’m talking about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease! Lung cancer! Systemic vascular compromise! I think you need a lesson.”
Slowly he brought the cigarette close to the boy’s face until it was almost touching the skin. The kid could do nothing but whimper, “I swear we just found it, I swear. I swear! I’ve never even seen one before.”
Then the waterworks really turned on. The kid cried so hard he was losing his breath.
Mac, a father himself, could only take Marnoy’s antics in small doses and stepped in. “That’s enough, let’s sign them up for Tobacco Rehab.”
“Please, it’s not ours! Don’t sign us up.”
“Stand up and put your wrists out now!” said Mac.
The teens slowly stood up. Four right arms extended out. Marnoy pulled out a little black rectangle from his pocket and touched each kid’s wrist. Four names popped up on the device’s display.
“All right. Jeff Husk, Zuy Luu, Gregory and Donald Power. You will all report next week for rehab.
You will be contacted shortly with more information.” After saying this, Marnoy couldn’t help but add, “You’re lucky this time. You four better hope I never see you again, because next time I’ll be sending you to a health retreat.”
With that he snapped his teeth down hard, making the crying kid jump. The agents climbed back into the car and pulled back onto the street.
Marnoy was in a much better mood; he was actually smiling, if you could call it that—he hadn’t had much practice with that particular facial expression. He turned to Mac and said, “Now where were we? Oh, yes, Mr. Pat Henderson. This little piggy went ‘wee, wee, wee’ all the way home.”
Copyright ©2013 Joshua Alan Parry
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Joshua Alan Parry is a medical resident at the Mayo Clinic. He received his medical degree from the University of Texas Medical School at Houston and holds a B.S. in molecular and cellular biology from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was also captain of the ice hockey team. Over the years, he has worked as a guide for at-risk youth in the Utah wilderness, a metal worker in Montreal, a salmon canner in Alaska, and a molecular genetics intern. He was raised in Keller, Texas.